THE REALITY OF KAREL APPEL, 1962, 15 minutes

“As an artist you have to fight and survive the wilderness to keep your creative freedom. Creativity is very fragile. It’s like a leaf in the fall; it hangs and when it drops you don’t know where it’s drifting.” –Karel Appel

Karel Appel, (Christiaan Karel Appel April 1921 – 3 May 2006) was a Dutch painter, sculptor, and poet. He started painting at the age of fourteen and studied at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in the 1940s. He was one of the founders of the avant-garde movement Cobra in 1948.


As a young artist Appel was influenced by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and later by Comte de Lautréamont’s The Songs of Maldoror and the teachings of Krishnamurti.

During the time of occupation of World War II, the Netherlands had been disconnected from the art world beyond its borders. COBRA was formed shortly thereafter. This international movement of artists who worked experimentally evolved from the criticisms of Western society and a common desire to break away from existing art movements, including “detested” naturalism and “sterile” abstraction. Experimentation was the symbol of an unfettered freedom, which, according to Constant, was ultimately embodied by children and the expressions of children. COBRA was formed by Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille, Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn, and Joseph Noiret on 8 November 1948 in the Café Notre-Dame, Paris, with the signing of a manifesto, “La cause était entendue” (“The Case Was Settled”), drawn up by Dotremont.  Formed with a unifying doctrine of complete freedom of colour and form, as well as antipathy towards Surrealism, the artists also shared an interest in Marxism as well as modernism.

Their working method was based on spontaneity and experiment, and they drew their inspiration in particular from children’s drawings, from primitive art forms and from the work of Paul Klee and Joan Miró.

Coming together as an amalgamation of the Dutch group Reflex, the Danish group Høst and the Belgian Revolutionary Surrealist Group, the group only lasted a few years but managed to achieve a number of objectives in that time: the periodical Cobra, a series of collaborations between various members called Peintures-Mot and two large-scale exhibitions. The first of these was held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, November 1949, the other at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Liège in 1951.

In November 1949 the group officially changed its name to Internationale des Artistes Expérimentaux with membership having spread across Europe and the USA, although this name has never stuck. The movement was officially disbanded in 1951, but many of its members remained close, with Dotremont in particular continuing collaborations with many of the leading members of the group. The primary focus of the group consisted of semi-abstract paintings with brilliant color, violent brushwork, and distorted human figures inspired by primitive and folk art and similar to American action painting. Cobra was a milestone in the development of Tachisme and European abstract expressionism.

Cobra was perhaps the last avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. According to Nathalie Aubert the group only lasted officially for three years (1948 to 1951). After that period each artist in the group developed their own individual paths.


The manifesto, entitled, “La cause était entendue” (The Case Was Settled) was written by CoBrA member Christian Dotremont and signed by all founding members in Paris in 1948. It was directly speaking to their experience attending the Centre International de Documentation sur l’Art d’Avant-garde in which they felt the atmosphere was sterile and authoritarian. It was a statement of working collaboratively in an organic mode of experimentation in order to develop their work separate from the current place of the avant-garde movement. The name of the manifesto was also a play on words from an earlier document signed by Belgian and French Revolutionary Surrealists in July 1947, entitled “La cause est entendue” (The Case Is Settled).

After CoBrA disbanded in 1951, Appel worked almost continually until his death, always trying new styles.

He had moved to Paris in 1950, where Michel Tapié included him in his manifesto exhibition, “Un Art Autre.” There, Appel met the New York art dealer Martha Jackson, who took him on in 1954. Appel then moved to New York in 1957. Jackson introduced him to the Abstract Expressionist painters there, including Willem de Kooning, who had an enormous impact on his work, and to jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Count Basie.

A fallow period began at the end of the 1960s, when Appel suffered a series of tragedies. Within a period of two years, Jackson, Appel’s mother and his second wife, Machteld, all died. At the same time, contemporary artists declared painting a dead art form, and Appel, like many painters of his generation, saw his work go out of fashion.

By the mid-1970s, however, when he met Harriet, who became his third and last wife, he was working again. Appel then attracted the attention of the influential New York dealer Annina Nosei, who also represented Jean-Michel Basquiat. He lived in the United States for much of the rest of his life, although his official residence was in Monaco.

The Reality Of Karel Appel (DE WERKELIJKHEID VAN KAREL APPEL), was directed by JAN VRIJMAN and released in 1962.   The Dutch abstract-expressionist Appel shown “at work” in a film that aims to reveal his philosophy of art: “I paint like a barbarian in a barbarian age”—and so he hits, attacks and slashes the canvas, flinging pigments against it, resulting in dynamic paintings showing an overfill, raging, run-away world. In 1962 it was awarded with a Golden Bear at the Berlinale.





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