Christian Karel Appel was born in Amsterdam in 1921. He lived, along with his parents and three brothers, in an apartment above his father’s barber shop, where he began apprenticing at an early age. Appel became interested in painting when he was young, but his parents did not approve of his decision to choose art as a vocation. It was his uncle, Karel Chevalier, an amateur painter, who encouraged Appel to pursue an art career.
Appel took classes at the Rejksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, from 1940 to 1943, a turbulent time in Europe. Holland was under German occupation and Appel faced the real possibility of being picked up by the German police in order to be sent to Germany to do forced labor.
The disapproval of his parents, combined with his need to hide from the Germans, led Appel to leave home and continue his work on his own in a small studio in Amsterdam and then at the homes of friends in an effort to elude the Germans.
I paint like a barbarian in a barbaric age”
Karel Appel had his first solo show in 1944, followed by his inclusion in a Jonge Schilders (Young Painters) exhibition at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam. Appel’s dynamic and unusual style caused much controversy at the museum, but Willem Sandberg, the museum’s director became a supporter. Sandberg was the first to buy one of Appel’s paintings for the museum’s permanent collection.
In 1947, Appel and his friend and fellow artist, Corneille, traveled to Paris, where Appel was strongly influenced by the Outsider Art of Jean Dubuffet. He began to create more sculptural and three-dimensional work, often using found objects. Appel’s avant-garde works led him to join CoBrA, a group of like-minded artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, who advocated the advancement of spontaneous and uninhibited art.
So controversial was Appel’s style at the time, that Questioning Children, a mural he was commissioned to paint for the Amsterdam City Hall in 1949, was covered up for nearly a decade.
As Appel’s technique evolved, so did his reputation and appreciation by the art world. In 1953, James Johnson Sweeney, the director of the Guggenheim in New York visited Appel’s studio and purchased two paintings for the museum. Gallery owner, Martha Jackson, represented Appel in New York for seventeen years.
Appel’s career continued its ascent when he made his first trip to New York in 1957. He met, and became a big fan of jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Miles Davis. He was also introduced to American abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. During the trip he also met MoMA director Alfred Barr and Herbert Read, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, who became one of Appel’s main supporters. Gallery owner, Martha Jackson, represented Appel in New York for seventeen years.
Appel traveled extensively throughout his life, was married and divorced twice, and lived and worked in both the United States and Europe. Around 2002, Appel’s health began to deteriorate, and he was hospitalized several times, although he continued to work. Appel died in Zurich in 2006 and was buried at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris.
Appel was awarded several Dutch Royal Awards, as well as the French Legion of Honor. Appel’s works are presently held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and many in other major collections around the world.
Fox, Margalit. 9 May 2006.Karel Appel, Dutch Expressionist Painter, Dies at 85. The New York Times