The spontaneous appeal of Karel Appel’s Art

Karel Appel: Laughing Frog and His Friends in the Golden Age, screenprint c.1975, numbered 47/120. Karel Appel: Laughing Frog and His Friends in the Golden Age, screenprint c.1975, numbered 47/120. Sold for $5,500 via Swann Auction Galleries (November 2019).

Cast your mind’s eye to high art and it might conjure an image of grand renaissance paintings for you. It might be conceptual, Abstract, Impressionist, or perhaps Cubist, but Karel Appel repeatedly defied expectation as an artist – and he didn’t share this outlook. Instead, he painted with a childlike spontaneity – and he did so intentionally, and with great success.

Dutch painter and sculptor Karel Appel in 1982

Dutch painter and sculptor Karel Appel in 1982 (Image via Wikimedia Commons).

There is method to this madness. A student of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in the 1940s, Appel was one of the founders of the avant-garde movement CoBrA in 1948. Initially under-appreciated, he would eventually receive critical and popular acclaim for his paintings and sculptures that have featured in MoMA and museums around the world.

Born in 1921 in Amsterdam, Appel picked up a paintbrush at the age of 14 and produced his first real painting on canvas, a still life of a fruit basket. A year later and his uncle, Karel Chevalier gave him a paint set and an easel, but Appel would have to hide his burgeoning artistic talents during his late teens and early twenties when the Nazis invaded Netherlands, as they would’ve undoubtedly viewed it as degenerate art

The Nazi’s weren’t the only barrier to Appel starting a career in art. Appel’s parents objected to his passion and he was forced to leave home. This, too, didn’t hamper him, and a year after the end of the war in Europe, Appel held his first show in Groningen. It was a landmark moment in his career, and he would go on to enjoy greater gallery recognition as his career progressed. In 1948 he established an avant-garde movement that would set him on a distinct artistic path.

King CoBrA

The group was called CoBrA, and was formed by Appel with ConstantCorneilleChristian DotremontAsger Jorn, and Joseph Noiret. The name was coined from the initials of the members’ home countries’ capital cities: Copenhagen (Co), Brussels (Br), Amsterdam (A) and despite being recognised later in life as pioneers in the genre, their collective work was initially unappreciated in Appel’s native Netherlands. 

Differing from their Abstract Expressionist American counterparts, CoBrA artists typically embodied a childish and spontaneous picture language, accompanied by an impulsive use of strong colors, and figuration, which is perceived by some as frightening, and by others as humorous. This spontaneous method was a rejection of Renaissance and civilized art and it’s not hard to see why this was the punk painting of its day. No rules or conventions were observed and expectations were there to be challenged. 

This innocent approach to art was particularly taken on board by Appel, who said: “We wanted to start again like a child” when discussing the impact of CoBrA. Sometimes they painted on wood, and sometimes included bits of cork or timber in their works, which is evident in Appel’s engaging and startling Questioning Children (sold for $140,172 via Sotheby’s, June 2001). Appel nailed bits of wood to a window shutter and then painted the wood with colorful characters. 

Juxtaposed subject 

At first glance, Questioning Children has a light and joyous appeal, but on second glance despite the vivid and childlike use of color, there’s a somber tone, as it was meant to reflect the children that Appel had seen begging in Germany following the end of the war. Appel enjoyed the way that children don’t spend too long thinking about how a picture should look, and this childlike approach juxtaposes the seriousness of the subject matter.

Appel painted Questioning Children in 1949 and originally it was intended to be displayed at the Town Hall in Amsterdam, but was condemned as incomprehensible and covered with wallpaper. In the same year, he produced Hip, Hip, Hoorah! With an entirely black background and vivid, demonic/innocent beings (you decide) in the foreground, the painting has the dreamlike, or even nightmarish quality of a child’s dream. 

In 1950 he moved to Paris, but the land of classical painters did not soften his approach. In fact, he further entrenched himself in the CoBrA style as he began to use much thicker paint and painted even stranger creatures. His People, Birds and Sun painting from 1954 typifies this emboldened approach as it appears to have an even more spontaneous style, with the paint applied in a very free, and much messier fashion. The same can be said of Crying Girl from 1953.

Karel Appel’s continued spontaneity 

This free-form approach that was bristling with spontaneity continued throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, with paintings including The Crying Crocodile Tries To Catch The Sun (1956), Dance in White Space (1959), and Heads in a Colourful Landscape (1965).

This period marked an era of increased recognition and popularity for Appel and in 1955 his painting, Child and Beast II (1951), was included in the influential exhibition, The New Decade at the Museum of Modern Art, which featured the work of 22 European painters and sculptors including newcomers like Francis BaconJean Dubuffet, and Pierre Soulages.

In the 1970s and into the 1980s, Appel continued to work in sculpture and painting, pushing his abstraction further with his window paintings – a series he began in 1980. Appel also gradually introduced landscapes into his iconography, such as Sunset Manhattan (above).

Despite continued exploration and creativity, it’s Appel’s earlier work that bristles with youthful, energetic and bold ideas – and that holds the most value today. Since 1998, the record price Appel’s work at auction is €841,000 (approximately $965,000) for Two Birds and a Flower, sold at Christie’s Paris in 2012. If that doesn’t match your budget then a selection of his works have a special place at the MoMA for you to pop in and visit.