Karel Appel

Karel Appel is one of the founding members of the CoBrA movement in the 1950s. Later Appel emerged as one of the most important modern artists of the 20th century for his use of color. Appel is held in the collections of innumerable museums worldwide.

Karel Appel is the only personality in Dutch art since 1945 to have established an international reputation. Born and bred in Amsterdam, Appel left Holland in 1950 for an unattached life in France and America, but he still represents the Dutch tradition in painting, from Rembrandt through Van Gogh. In his home country, he symbolizes the renewal that has taken place over the past thirty years. For the general public, Appel is the a of Cobra, the international movement that grew out of the Experimental Group Holland. The contribution of that group to the development of European art in the years 1948 – 1951 has not yet been fully appreciated.

The situation in art was vague in the extreme when the Dutch experimentalists, coming together with kindred spirits from Denmark and Belgium, deci- ded to start up a new group. Cobra took itS name from the three cities its members came from: Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam, but it also carries with it the connotations of violence and revolt that are associated with the snake. Cobra put forward spontaneity as against all the -isms that had turned into formulas and were throttling art. When Appel, suiting the action to the word, let out his Cry of Freedom in 1948, it was as if all hell had broken loose. The then director of the municipal museum in Amsterdam, Willem Sandberg, who came out strongly for the Cobra movement, was to say: “For the worthy citizen, the name of Karel Appel means total anarchy.”

By this time, all that is ancient history, but Appel still goes on. Maybe he no longer bawls out Freedom over the roofs of the world, but it’s become integrated into his whole life-style. He is the perfect image of the free artist, the elusive asocial figure who is hailed as a hero after being neglected and scorned. As art hero, Appel now has Success and fame, and these tend to appeal more to the imagination than the actual work of the imagination itself. But if Appel is a myth, and he knows well enough how to preserve and exploit that myth, behind the myth there is an artist who in the privacy of his studio has to struggle with the power of the imagination that he has conjured up, and who has to prove himself continually.

The myth is no more than a smokescreen. The life-story of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh may bring us closer to the man, but it does not penetrate through to the artist, whose reality is harder to get at. The Appel story is growing every day, but it has precious little to do with the creative life of the artist who works with colour, space and form, conjuring up a world that reflects not only his own inner reality but the reality of our times.

“My paint tube is like a rocket which describes its own space. I try to make the impossible possible. What is happening I cannot forsee; it is a surprise. Painting, like passion, is an emotion full of truth and rings a living sound–like the roar coming from the lion’s breast.”

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