Karel Appel was a Dutch artist best known as one of the founding members of the avant-garde CoBrA group after World War II. ‘I don’t paint, I hit’, he said of his bold expressive style.
Appel was born in Amsterdam in 1921. The son of a barber, he received a scholarship to study at the city's Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten. Early influences for the artist included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Jean Dubuffet. He had his first solo exhibition in the Dutch city of Groningen in 1946.
Two years later, Appel and a number of like-minded artists launched the CoBrA movement: so named because its members hailed from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. These artists included Christian Dotremont and Asger Jorn, and they took inspiration from the creativity and worldview of children.
They allowed their imagination and paintbrushes to roam free, and the results were artworks of exuberance and spontaneity. In the case of a fresco that Appel was asked to paint in the cafeteria of Amsterdam’s city hall in 1949, the authorities thought it was far too exuberant — and covered it for a decade with wallpaper.
The CoBrA group disbanded in 1951. Appel, however, continued to make art in a broadly similar vein afterwards: with vivid colours, vigorous brushstrokes, thick impasto, and aggressively distorted animal and human figures as subjects.
From the mid-1950s onwards, he spent increasing amounts of time in New York, where his work started to grow freer and show an affinity with that of the Abstract Expressionists — albeit always with the retention of some figurative element.
In 1965, he received the first of several retrospectives, at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: a show that subsequently travelled to Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.
Alongside painting, Appel worked successfully in a number of other media: from textiles and ceramics to printmaking. Among his most popular works is a series of lithographs of cats from 1978; and a colourful cycle of prints and painted wooden sculptures from around the same time, inspired by the circus.
Appel died in 2006. Six years later, his painting Two Birds and a Flower (1951) sold for €840,000 at Christie’s. This set a record for the most expensive price ever paid for a work by Appel at auction.