May 21st 2017

Karel Appel in Context

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

Karel Appel was born in Amsterdam in 1921, the son of a barber in a poor neighborhood. As a child, he painted with his uncle, an amateur artist. In 1942, he entered Amsterdam’s Royal Academy of Visual Art. In 1947, he and a classmate, the painter Corneille, traveled together to Paris, where they discovered modern art.

In 1948, Appel and Corneille were among the founders of CoBrA. In 1949, Appel was commissioned to paint a mural for Amsterdam’s City Hall, but his effort was rejected, and covered over. In 1950, Appel went back to Paris, where he lived for most of the next three decades. He knew he had found his true home. Now, on the occasion of a donation of 21 of Appel’s works to the Musee Moderne de la Ville de Paris, his adopted home honors him with a retrospective exhibition.


Image courtesy Musee de l’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris

Karel Appel in 1961; image from the Jan Vrijman film “La réalité de Karel Appel.”

CoBrA’s brief life extended just three years. The movement is encapsulated in one of the first works in this exhibition, a small painting about two feet long. Asger Jorn began it by painting over a work by Richard Mortenson, then Appel, Constant, and Corneille added their own contributions. The painting has a shining yellow sun, a bright red moon, a small person with large hands and feet, and a variety of flying fish and buildings. The colors are exuberant and joyful, though patches of black show through from an underlying base.


Image courtesy Musee de l’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris

Karel Appel, “Petit Hip Hip Hourra” (1949).

Appel’s early works consistently exhibit this pattern, with the optimism of primitive forms reminiscent of children’s art, expressed in a rainbow of bright colors, overcoming a black background. We can imagine that this was an aesthetic self-portrait of a talented and free-spirited young artist who had come of age in northern Europe amidst the carnage of World War II. By the late ‘40s Hitler had been defeated, and in Paris Appel and his Dutch friends had discovered the innovations of modern art: yet even as they celebrated, the realities of a devastated Europe, and the continuing dour conservatism of their native Holland, remained ever present in their minds. In context, all Appel and Corneille wanted from CoBrA was the excitement of artistic discovery: they had initially founded it to escape from the dogmas of Surrealism, and they disbanded it to escape from the political agendas of other, more doctrinaire poets and painters. The title of this show – L’Art est une fete – is appropriate: Appel wanted art to be a party. Like many parties, however, Appel’s art was not mere revelry, but celebrated great victories, and revealed a deep personal symbolism he created as he worked, and lived.


Image courtesy Musee de l’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris

Karel Appel, “Danseurs de désert” (1954).

In the 1950s, Appel’s art approached abstraction. The French critic Michel Tapié recognized his kinship to Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme, and included him in an important 1957 exhibition titled Un art autre – Art of Another Kind – with his American and French relatives. Appel was seeking expression, like Pollock in New York and de Stael in Paris, and he found it in his own distinctive version of gestural painting, with heavy impasto created by squeezing oils straight from their tubes onto the canvas, as he worked to the bebop music of another brilliant young rebel, Dizzy Gillespie. A 1961 film shows Appel at work, attacking a huge canvas violently, large brushes in both hands. The process appears chaotic, but – like Pollock’s – the result is not. The finished work hangs nearby, visually resolved not only with the bright primary colors, but now with a white background pushing through gaps in the nascent forms.

Just as Europe had emerged from the aftermath of war, it seems that Appel had exorcised the demons of his own early life. His art can be seen as a lifelong festival, celebrating both society’s victories over the political evils of the mid-20th century, and his personal victory over the severe constraints that had surrounded an aspiring artist in the Holland of his youth. Like van Gogh and Mondrian before him, Karel Appel had found inspiration in Paris, and today in the vast rooms of the city’s modern art museum we can celebrate the beauty of his discoveries.



David Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA in Buenos Aires. He studies the life cycles of human creativity.

To contact Professor David Galenson: galenson@uchicago.edu.

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