Karel Appel

One of the star artworks in the Ambassade Hotel Collection is a portrait of Theo Wolvecamp painted by Appel. And the hotel has more work by this Dutch master. Read about this artist below and find out what lies behind the work you see hanging in the hotel.

Karel Appel
Amsterdam 1921- 2006 Zurich


‘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.’

Appel’s outward appearance, however, had been quite different just a few years before, as you can clearly see 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.

The 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.

Appel in his studio in 1947. City Archives Collection

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 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. 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. (See page on Cobra.)

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.

Portraits
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. 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.

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. 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/

Karel Appel and Hugo Claus, “De Blijde En Onvoorziene Week”, (The happy and unexpected week) 1950. Ambassade Hotel Collection

Read more about Theo Wolvecamp, Corneille, Brands, Constant, Jacques Doucet, Anton Rooskens, Dotremont, Tajiri, Cobra, the locations where the works hang, Wouter Schopman (the story behind the collection).