2016: several exhibitions on Karel Appel

In 2016 various exhibitions on Karel Appel will be made in several countries. Here the short essay I wrote for Cobra on the Canal in 2013 about Appel.

Karel Appel

Amsterdam 1921 – 2006 Zurich

Artist – poet

you know now what red does

red loves to walk in the green grass

you know now what yellow knows

that the sun shines because no one gladly dies

and of blue: that celestial blue looks black

for a child who gets nothing

(excerpt from a poem by Lucebert for Karel Appel’s Questioning children)

‘Appel came across as uncouth at the time. He had a fringe and very long hair, wore an embroidered Russian shirt with a belt and a high collar, which was most unusual in 1947’, Henny Riemens, photographer and Corneille’s ex-wife, recalled in the documentary Cobra (1948-1951) Painting after the Second World War. 

Writer Louis Tiessen described him, in the same documentary, as follows: ‘Karel really looked like one of his own paintings. Through his choice of colours and his rough explosive character; that’s how he spoke too. Very powerful.’

Hugo Claus said, ‘Appel’s receptiveness to the material, the tension in his colour, his plastic qualities, give his work a deeper dimension, a valuable power that children’s drawings only rarely evoke. The hesitant line of the child becomes an emotive strength with him, because the wildest rapture, the most spontaneous improvisation remains a construction created from mastery of the material.’

Hugo Claus, again, ‘Spurred on by the endless possibilities that COBRA opened up, and based on the preparatory work produced by the Danes Asger Jorn and Carl-Henning Pedersen, those modern repercussions of the Nordic folk art, Appel delved deep into the material. He made monsters, mythical transformations of the human being (in their tremendous simplicity friends and acquaintances of Dubuffet’s ‘Hautes Pâtes’) hewn out of mud and lava and with laborious diligence jointly incised into an image.



Appel’s outward appearance, however, had been quite different just a few years prior to the description given by above-mentioned Louis Tiessen and Henny Riemens about him in the late 1940s. The difference is clearly visible in the self-portraits he made in 1941 or thereabouts. One of these portraits shows him as a respectable, self-confident young man in a suit and bow tie. A lot had changed between 1941 and 1948.

Appel_1_d79c6066c5The self-portrait in the newspaper is more likely to date from 1941 rather than 1939, as stated in the caption.

One thing didn’t change, and that was his love of portraits. Forty years on, Appel said to Jan Vrijman, ‘I’m a born portraitist. I still find it really easy to draw a portrait, quickly or even detailed if you like. I still make portraits. Using other techniques, but I still do it.’ Karel Appel, at that time, had developed into one of the most famous Dutch artists.

Life history

Karel Appel was born into a simple hairdresser’s family in the neighbourhood known as Dapperbuurt in Amsterdam in 1921. Early on, when just fourteen, he claims to have started painting Monet-style but with the colours of Van Gogh. He attended the Royal Academy during the Second World War to train to become an artist. The Nazi occupation and the ban on all art considered degenerate (Entartete), such as expressionism, abstract art and cubism, cut him off from all new developments in the arts.

Towards the end of the war he fled from Amsterdam to escape the famine (‘the Hunger Winter’) and went into hiding in Twente. After liberation, borders opened up again and the young Appel and his friend Corneille, who he had got to know at the Royal Academy, travelled together to Liège and Paris. They absorbed everything it was possible to absorb like a pair of sponges. Appel delved into spiritualism, German philosophers, German expressionism, fauvism, Picasso, ethnographic art and much more besides.

He soon thought that he could pit himself against the artistic heavyweights. In 1947, he wrote to Corneille, ‘I’m now making a powerful primitive piece stronger than African art and Picasso. (…) I pushed on through the wall of abstract art and surrealism and suchlike. My work encompasses all…’ When he wrote this he was still living in tremendous poverty in Amsterdam.

It was around this time that Appel became friends with artists Corneille and Constant and these three young men set up the Dutch Experimental Group. Artists Eugène Brands, Theo Wolvecamp, Anton Rooskens, Jan Nieuwenhuys and T. Hansma joined later on. Appel found a kindred spirit in Theo Wolvecamp, in particular. He too was a penniless buccaneer.

Quite by chance they had both gone underground during the war barely 500 metres away from each other. It subsequently created a bond. Theo stayed with Appel when he visited Amsterdam. Wolvecamp was already making paintings mixed with sand and which he called explosion.

On 8 November 1948, in Paris, Appel and artists from Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Brussels set up the international Cobra movement. The group quickly grew as other artists and writers joined. They enjoyed intense collaboration for a while, resulting in various publications and joint artworks.

bibliotheque Cobra

In 1950, the Belgian writer Christian Dotremont published a small Cobra book on Karel Appel .

He characterised Appel in the following words: ‘Appel does not suffer from an inferiority complex and his paintings even less. But, be warned, I do not mean that he and his work is pretentious. No, far from it, but they attest to a certain brutality which hardly leaves any room for doubt; he is sure, at least, that Appel exists, that Appel’s paintings exist, and that Appel is alive, and that Appel’s paintings are created from paint in various colours.’

In 1951 the Cobra movement disintegrated. Appel was then already living in Paris, in Rue Santeuil, with a group of artists including Corneille, and he was no longer involved with Cobra. He distanced himself from any political, philosophical and social discussions that took place in the group. His prime concern was to make new discoveries.

Author Simon Vinkenoog got to know Appel in Paris. He wrote the following:

‘In Paris, around 1950, I got to know Karel Appel, got to know him better and to value his work, and witnessed the struggle he had to gain recognition, to elevate him to the position he now has. (…) He is a born leading figure, who can never remain in the background. He is a leading figure who transforms material into spirit the minute he lifts a finger and who courteously follows attempts by others to play along; for he is, after all, the only one who really knows how important it is that he lives and works. And he doesn’t take the slightest notice of any commentaries by outsiders, mine included.’

One of the most crucial elements from the Cobra movement that Appel continued to use throughout his life was direct expression that evolved out of the material. It spurred him on to paint without a premeditated plan. ‘Suddenly an image can appear from nothing’, he himself said.

This was why, in the 1950s, he started using even more paint. The image then blended more into the background, but it did not, Appel insisted, become abstract. Some people called him a creative god in a universe of his own making. And animals were very important in that universe. The range included cats, birds, fish as well as strange creatures, such as the bird fish with legs in the Ambassade Hotel Collection.

International acclaim gave Appel huge financial freedom. The art trade helped him to paint and to travel across the globe.

He accepted being part of the modern jungle that this implied, but said that he only truly existed when working on a canvas.

Appel died in Zurich in 2006.


Appel started painting more portraits again in the 1950s. His friend Hugo Claus, painted in 1952, and Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and painted in 1953, seem to have rekindled this passion. He went on to portray people who were dear to him or who aroused his curiosity.

Url Huffington Post Karel Appel, Portrait of Theo Wolvecamp (1957). All images courtesy of the Ambassade Hotel, Amsterdam.

The series includes his friend Theo Wolvecamp. This portrait is now one of the star pieces in the Ambassade Hotel Collection.

Appel and Wolvecamp stayed close friends right up to the end. Appel visited Wolvecamp when he was in the Netherlands and he read a poem at Wolvecamp’s funeral. Appel admired Wolvecamp.

Oddly enough, Wolvecamp is readily recognizable in this portrait, which you cannot say of most of Appel’s other portraits. Was it made based on a modification? Did he modify a photograph and transpose the changed atmosphere onto canvas? We simply do not know. You can see a few beautiful details in the painting, such as the red lines squeezed straight out of the tube and onto the canvas. This time they are almost tender. ‘Painting is a tangible, sensory experience. And being deeply moved by the joy and the tragedy of mankind’, is just one of the many quotes by Appel about his discipline.

Appel’s international breakthrough happened roughly at the same time as he started painting portraits. In 1957 he travelled to New York in the USA after receiving an invitation from gallery owner Martha Jackson. He made portraits of American Jazz musicians. These were people he admired most of his life and who inspired his work for a long time.

Work by Appel is included in the following collections:

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, Van Abbe Museum Eindhoven, Tate Gallery London, Moma New York and many other museums too numerous to mention here. If you would like to see an overview, go to:

http://www.karelappelfoundation. com/index.cfm/karelappel/relevant-links/public-collections/

Esther Schreuder in Cobra on the Canal (2013 Samsara)

See for the exhibitions : Gemeente Museum The Hague / Slewe Gallery Amsterdam / Blum & Poe gallery / Centre Pompidou Paris / MAM Paris / Phillips collection Washington / München / Fundatie Zwolle / see Karel Appel foundation

See for review book Cobra on the CanalHuffington Post


Text from the book : Cobra on the canal (2013) about the Cobra collection in the Ambassade Hotel in Amsterdam.  copyrights are paid by the publisher Samsara.

Translation: Vivien Cook

About me

In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.

Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover
Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover

2012 my Anniversary book: 100 years Schiller 1912-2012 was published. Initiative, idea, text and editing (ES). Design and photography Monica Schokkenbroek.

In 2013 my book Cobra aan de grachtCobra on the Canal was published by Samsara publications.

In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)

In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)

Cupido en Sideron Cover 30-8-2017

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