Karel Appel, whose full name was Christian Karel Appel, was born on 25 April 1921 in Amsterdam, where his parents ran a hairdressing salon. He himself was apprenticed as a hairdresser at first, but an early photograph dating from 1937 shows the 16-year-old already at an easel in the attic of his parents’ house on Dapperstraat. In 1940 he followed his wish to become a painter, studying until 1944 at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam.
In 1946 Appel went to Denmark, where he met Asger Jorn. That same year he first exhibited his works, at Het Beerenhuis in Groningen, and was also represented at the »Jonge Schilders« group exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. His art at this time was visibly influenced by Picasso, Matisse and Dubuffet. But he was already creating the first relief assemblages from pieces of wood and other objets trouvés, which he combined to form Dadaist, narrative compositions.
By then Karel Appel had become a member of the artist group CoBrA, which had formed at the Café de l’Hôtel Notre Dame in Paris on 8 November 1948. The name of the venomous snake, the cobra, unites the initials of the artists’ home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. Alongside Asger Jorn, Constant, Corneille and Lucebert, Karel Appel later became the internationally most successful of this loose grouping, which broke up in 1952. The aim of CoBrA was to overcome the rigid geometric abstractions of the de Stijl artists, but they also wanted to replace the sublimely elegant psychological approach of the Surrealists by spontaneity. The role models for the CoBrA artists were the broad gesture, the strong coloration, relief-like paint application and simple forms of non-European art, children’s paintings and the work of the mentally ill. A first exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum caused a scandal when it was staged in 1949. That same year, Amsterdam city council commissioned Appel to paint the walls of a canteen in the City Hall. The result was his fresco Questioning Children, which was subsequently covered by a curtain for ten years following protests from the canteen users.
Appel settled in Paris in 1950, where he was united by a lifelong friendship and working relationship with the Flemish lyricist, novella writer and playwright Hugo Claus. Here, Appel’s great affinity for literary expression was manifested. In 1962, Claus published a first extensive homage to the artist. On behalf of Amsterdam city council, in 1951 Appel painted the fresco in the foyer of the auditorium at the Stedelijk Museum, which went down in legend as the ›Appel Bar‹. In Paris, Appel was linked with the artist group Art Informel or Art Autre from 1952, and was also introduced by the critic and curator Michel Tapié to Pollock, De Kooning, Wols and Hartung.
Karel Appel’s international breakthrough came with his participation in the 1953 Biennale in Sao Paulo. The New York gallery owner Martha Jackson visited his Paris studio, purchased works, and exhibited them in 1954. Until then Appel had worked as a painter, poet, draughtsman, printmaker, fresco artist and sculptor, but now he started making pottery, inspired by a trip to Italy. In 1956, Appel made stained-glass windows for the Holy Rood Church in Geleen, which depicted scenes from Genesis. In spite of the ›barbarity‹ of his art (as he himself described it) he always remained committed to figuration. Masks, torsos, human, animal and vegetable bodies develop out of his briskly and vehemently painted conglomerations of colour and form, as is demonstrated by his print Two Figures. And his sculptures, solely through their assembled objets trouvés, point to the forms of reality and in their combination create a droll and sometimes poetic fairy-tale Appel reality. He understands his artistic œuvre as a window on his soul, which he opens up to the beholder in a playful process in which chance plays a role.
The 1960s and 70s were characterized by travel, contact and collaboration with Allen Ginsberg, and portraits of American jazz greats such as Miles Davis. During this period Appel created more than 40 works for public and private spaces, thus striving, guided by architecture, for a gesamtkunstwerk in the spirit of the times. Apple was represented at Documenta II (1959) and III (1964) in Kassel. In 1961 the Dutch director Jan Vrijman made the documentary film ›The Reality of Karel Appel‹.
Appel’s creativity brought forth an extensive, dense and varied body of work, which included, as a result of a 1987 commission by the Paris Opera for the ballet ›Can we dance a landscape?‹, new tasks for the stage. A high point came in 1995 with his production of Mozart’s Magic Flute for the Dutch State Opera. The same year, the Cobra Museum opened in Amstelveen. In 1999, he set up the Karel Appel Foundation, whose main goal was to draw up a catalogue raisonné. In 2001, to mark his 80th birthday, a number of major retrospectives were held in the Netherlands. Appel published his poems in 2000 under the title ›The Will to Power of the Planets‹.
Karel Appel died in Zürich on 3 May 2006 and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
B. Wismer (ed.): Le grand geste! Informel und abstrakter Expressionismus, 1946 — 1964, Cologne 2010
C. Houts: Karel Appel. De Biografie, Amsterdam 2003
Karel Appel. Der Machtwille des Planeten, Vienna 2001
J.F. Lyotard: Karel Appel: Ein Farbgestus. Essay zur Kunst Karel Appels, Bern, Berlin 1998
Karel Appel: Psychopathologisches Notizbuch. Zeichnungen und Gouachen 1948 — 1950, Bern 1997