Karel Appel Biography

(Dutch Painter & Sculptor Who was One of the Founders of the Avant-Garde Movement ‘CoBrA’ in 1948)

Birthday: April 25, 1921 (Taurus)

Born In: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Christiaan Karel Appel was a Dutch painter, lithographer, sculptor, poet and one of the founders of the European avant-garde art movement called CoBrA. He was widely known for his brilliantly coloured semi-abstract compositions characterized by violent brushwork and depicting distorted human figures. He was influenced by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Jean Dubuffet and his first show happened in Groningen. Appel along with other artists including his friends Corneille and Constant, who shared an interest in Marxism and modernism, formed CoBrA with a unifying doctrine of absolute freedom of form and colour as also antipathy towards Surrealism. Their first major exhibition held at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam generated huge scandal and furious criticism from press and the public. After Appel’s fresco Questioning Children spurred controversy and CoBrA started getting negative Dutch reactions, the artist moved to Paris and gained international recognition travelling to Mexico, the US, Yugoslavia, and Brazil. He found fame in the Netherlands after 1990 and with time emerged as the most famous Dutch CoBrA artist. Appel was also a noted sculpture who began sculpting with used materials and painted them in bright colours. His works has been featured in several exhibitions and galleries across the globe including at The New Decade in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and in the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York City. He set up the Karel Appel Foundation, objective of which includes preservation and promotion of his works.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Christiaan Karel Appel

Died At Age: 85


Spouse/Ex-: Harriet Appel, Machteld van der Groen (m. ? – 1970)

father: Jan Appel

mother: Johanna Chevalier

Born Country: Netherlands

Poets Artists

Died on: May 3, 2006

place of death: Zürich, Switzerland

Notable Alumni: Rijksakademie

Cause of Death: Heart Ailment

City: Amsterdam, Netherlands

More Facts

education: Rijksakademie

Childhood & Early Life

Christiaan Karel Appel was born on April 25, 1921, in the house of Jan and Johanna (born Chevalier) Appel at Dapperstraat 7 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, as second of their four sons. His father ran a barbershop on the ground floor of the house. His mother was a descendant of French Huguenots. Appel, who was often called Kik during his childhood, worked in his father’s barbershop as an apprentice.

Appel developed interest in painting early and created his first real painting on canvas, a still life of a fruit basket, at the age of fourteen. His rich maternal uncle, Johanna’s eldest brother, Karel Chevalier, who was an amateur painter, gifted him a paint set and an easel on his fifteenth birthday. Appel also received some painting lessons from Chevalier. The latter also took the boy to his own instructor, Jozef Verheijen who taught Appel his craft.

From 1940 to 1943, when the Netherlands was under German occupation during Second World War and was disconnected from the art world beyond its boundaries, Appel attended the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam (State Academy of Fine Arts). During his tenure there, Appel befriended young painter Corneille. A few years later the two became friends with another young painter, Constant, and the three remained close friends for years.

His passion for the art and opposition of his parents for his choice of pursuing painting as a profession led Appel to leave home. His decision of leaving home was also to some extent influenced by the fact that he needed to hide from the German police as otherwise he would be picked up and sent to Germany to work in the weapons industry.

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The first show of Appel happened in 1946 in Groningen. Appel was influenced by prominent Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and French painters Henri Matisse and Jean Dubuffet, and this reflected in his early works. He began sculpting in 1947 and created his work with used materials applying the method of assemblage and then painting his creations with vivid colours.

In July 1948, Appel, Corneille, Constant and his brother Jan Nieuwenhuys founded Experimentele Groep in Holland (Experimental Group Holland). The first issue of its magazine, Reflex, was published in September that year. Meanwhile Appel, Corneille and Constant exhibited their paintings together and were many a times seen together in the European art scene.

On November 8, 1948, Appel, Corneille and Constant joined hands with Belgian painters Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret and Danish painter Asger Jorn and formed the European avant-garde art movement called COBRA or CoBra on the terrace of the Café Notre-Dame in Paris signing a manifesto, La cause était entendue (The Case Was Settled). Dotremont derived the name of the art movement from the letters of their hometowns: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The artists of the group who favoured spontaneous expressionism and abstract features and opposed aesthetics in painting and bourgeois art in general shared an interest in Marxism and modernism and drew inspiration from the works of Paul Klee and Joan Miró, from primitive art forms and particularly from children’s drawings. They formed CoBra to break away from existing art movements and with a unifying doctrine of absolute freedom of colour and form. The group had antipathy towards Surrealism and its working method was based on spontaneity and experiment.

The first major CoBra exhibition under the title Exposition Internationale d’Art Expérimental (International Exhibition of Experimental Art) was held at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in November 1949 organised by the museum's director and curator Willem Sandberg and designed by architect Aldo van Eyck. The exhibition however evoked furious criticism from both the press and public leading to a huge scandal.

After the new art of CoBrA failed to garner popularity in the Netherlands and Appel’s 1949 fresco Vragende kinderen (Questioning Children) that he created for the cafeteria in the Amsterdam City Hall was condemned as incomprehensible causing controversy, he moved to Paris in 1950. The mural portrayed smiling yet mourning faces of hungry kids who were abandoned following the war. It made officials, who were enjoying lunch there, very uncomfortable; sparked massive protests and controversy and was thus covered over by wallpaper and remained so for a decade.

He garnered international repute after travelling to Mexico, Brazil, Yugoslavia and the US. His first significant solo exhibition was held in 1952 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Same year James Johnson Sweeney, director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, bought two paintings of Appel and chose him for the Young European Painters exhibition that was held at the Guggenheim Museum later that year.

He got introduced to American art dealer, gallery owner, and collector Martha Jackson in 1953 and his first American gallery exhibition happened at the newly founded Martha Jackson Gallery in the following year. He represented the Netherlands at the 27th Venice Biennale in 1954 and was awarded the UNESCO prize. His first solo exhibition was held at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in November that year and starting from that year, Appel collaborated with several architects including J. H. van den Broek and Jaap Bakema and created around 40 architecture-related works for private and public buildings through the 1960 and 1970s. During this time, he experimented with different materials and techniques, such as glass in concrete reliefs, stained glass and ceramic and marble tiles.

Meanwhile, his 1951 painting Child and Beast II found place in the influential exhibition titled The New Decade, which was held at the MoMA in 1955 and showcased work of 22 European painters and sculptors.

One of his noted murals was the Rencontre du printemps (Encounter in Spring), which he painted for the restaurant of the UNESCO building in Paris in 1957. Since 2009, the work has been installed in the Conference Forum of the building.

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By the 1960s he was settled in New York City. During his stay in the US, Appel painted portraits of noted jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and was introduced to Action Painting in which paint is splashed, dribbled or smeared onto the canvas in a spontaneous manner. He later stayed in Italy and Switzerland for some time.

Belgian author, painter, poet and film director Hugo Maurice Julien Claus, who participated in the CoBrA movement as a painter since 1950, collaborated with Appel and Corneille, and also wrote an extensive study on Appel’s work in 1962.

Appel introduced a new method in 1988 by using thick paint on a monochrome, black or white.

His popularity in the Netherlands grew noticeably after 1990. Dutch art historian and curator Rudy Fuchs, who served as director of several art museums organised big shows of Appel in Amsterdam and Bruxelles. The Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, Netherlands, which displays works of Appel and other international avant-garde artists, also organised many shows featuring Appel’s works. His works has also been displayed in several galleries like the Galerie Lelong in Paris, the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York City, the Gallery LL in Amsterdam and Galerie Ulysses in Vienna. The contemporary art galleries Galerie Max Hetzler and Almine Rech represent Appel’s estate. Some of his notable works includes Hip, Hip, Hoorah! (1949), People, Birds and Sun (1954), Amorous Dance (1955) and Heads in a Colorful Landscape (1965).

On May 19, 1999, Appel formed the Karel Appel Foundation, a non-profit organisation, objective of which includes promoting and preserving his artworks, and supervising publication of the Oeuvre Catalogue of the paintings, the sculptures and the works on paper. Several of his works went missing on the way to his foundation in 2002. These works were found in 2012, several years after Appel’s death, in a disused warehouse in the United Kingdom and were given back to the foundation. Besides maintaining its primary objectives, the Amsterdam based foundation functions as the official estate of the artist following his death. The Artists Rights Society is the U.S. copyright representative for the foundation.

He received several awards and honours for his contribution in the art including Dutch royal award (Ridder in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau); second Dutch royal decoration (Ridder der tweede graad Commandeur in de orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw); and French Légion d’Honneur, in the grade of Officier.

Personal Life

In 1945, Appel had a brief relationship with a lady called Truusje who died same year. The following year, he met Tonie Sluyter in Amsterdam. Tonie later became his first wife.

Appel met Machteld van der Groen in Rotterdam in 1954. She became his second wife. Machteld died in 1969.

In 1971, Appel bought a large studio cum apartment in a residential building at Rue Marie Pape-Carpantier in Paris. In 1975, he met Harriet de Visser in Amsterdam and in 1976, following his separation from his then Indonesian girlfriend Hennie Sutopo, Harriet moved into Rue Marie Pape-Carpantier, marking the beginning of the most enduring relationship of Appel. In 1978, Harriet set up an archive as also a more professional administration of the artist’s work.

Appel suffered from a heart ailment and underwent a heart surgery in 2004. He passed away on May 3, 2006, in his home in Zurich, Switzerland. He was interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, on May 16 that year.

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