The MAM Paris presents the works of Dutch artist Karel Appel in an exhibition which retraces the course of his artistic career, his evolution amongst his peers and his many travels, which have influenced his content and technique. From sculptures, murals, and paintings, Appel explored different means, always dominating his narrative and apposing his virulent signature brushstrokes onto the surface of his choice.
Bold, energetic and creative are perhaps what expresses better the characteristics of Appel’s pieces. Not wanting to follow his influences, Picasso, Matisse, and Dubuffet, he actively took part in the COBRA group with Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys), Corneille (Guillaume Cornelis Beverloo), and other painters from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam.
Appel delved into a world of his own, made of loud and vibrant colours, creatures made of voluptuous and comfortable contours and nonviolent scribbles remnant of children’s drawings. In “Nachtvogels” and “Dieren boven het dorp”, numbers of identifiable animals are depicted, formed by blocks of single colours, geometric shapes, and a harmonious palette, different to each painting. The interaction, post-war, with children’s drawings at the Saint-Anne psychiatric hospital in Paris, and the encounter of anguished starved children while traveling to Germany, influenced the artist to materialize childhood and innocence, using raw pieces of derelict wood and nails, blended with spirited colours and children’s bodies and faces.
As abstract expressionism became the current movement adopted by most painters of the post-war era, so were Appel’s paintings. With a palette knife, he violently applied paint on the canvas, limiting the passage of time and space of inner emotions to the rendering. As we walk through the series of paintings hung on the large white walls of the MAM Paris, the tone and ambience becomes darker, filled with anxiety and fear. The reassuring creatures of the beginning have transformed into terrifying monsters, drowned in a black colour scheme. If the exhibition focuses mainly on paintings , enhanced with sculptures and ceramics – “Head”, the black and white glazed piece standing alone on a pillar in the middle of the room, is mesmerizing by the contexture of its twirling layers and holes, remnant of an abstract skull; it has not been reinforced that Appel was throughout his life, responsible for various murals in public spaces and in artists’ homes.
The series and sculptures which are coming next in the chronological order, demonstrate the ability of the artist to move away from a period of his life and mature, while keeping the clearly definable traits which characterized his strokes. He depicts nude women by using a colour palette rich in gradients, audaciously positioned one against another. Appel uses the same gestural brushstrokes in his paintings as he does in his sculptures. The uneven surfaces and irregularities confer dynamism and life to the art works . His frequent travels around the world seem to be the trigger to the gradual changes he brings to his art. The pieces in the last room translate the return to figurative painting, during which the artist focused on human beings as the narrative, imprisoned in their anxiety, surrounded by torments, and symbolized on the canvas by blacks, reds, and greys. The final pieces of the exhibition are a bitter pill to swallow. The jovial atmosphere of the beginning fades as I walk towards the final pieces. The feeling that either the exhibition is running out of paintings to show, or that in the 2000s, the artist only delivered melancholic and disillusioned artworks, leaves me breathless. I am astonished when facing the last sculpture “De ongewenste dynamische sprong in de geluidloze ruimte van het paard”. People escape from a dead horse’s stomach, as it lays lifeless on its back, supported by two black swans, advancing peacefully and holding the ears of a roe deer. Although he uses his recurrent animal theme here, Appel shifts from a credulous content to reflection and interpretation.
I do not believe that the ones from the beginnings were lacking meaning, I perceive Appel’s career as a manifestation of an underlying and almost secretive intention, which resolved and appeared when he became ready. This last piece strikes me by its blend of credulity and disarray. Contrary to the title of the exhibition “Art is a party”, at a certain point it ceases to be.
Karel Appel at Musée d’Art Moderne Paris (24 February – 20 August 2017)