This work is registered in the Archives of the Karel Appel Foundation
As the charming title bestowed on this work suggests, this vibrant, dynamic and cheerfully humorous painting of a child-like figure seemingly emerging from the lines and abstract fields of vibrant colour derives from the height of Karel Appel's involvement with the Cobra movement.
Invoking the noble and much-feared snake, 'CoBrA' - derived its name from the three main cities - Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam - where its members came from. A radical and truly international avant-garde movement that sprang up in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it existed as an officially defined movement for three years between 1948 and 1951, though its collective spirit and influence lasted for much of the 1950s. Championing the urgent need for a rebirth of the human spirit and a primitive sense of vitality and creative energy in a broken world dominated by the recent horrors and deprivation of the war, the Cobra artists banded together in the late 1940s in a sprit of collective resistance against the tragedies of their age. The war and the Nazi Occupation of their various countries had made each member acutely aware that their art, considered degenerate by the occupying forces, was a vital and genuine expression of freedom and resistance. 'In essence, our culture has already died' Cobra member Constant explained in 1948, 'We have lost everything that provided us with security and are left bereft of all belief. Save this: that we live and that it is part of the essence of life to manifest itself. I am presenting this vital manifesto in opposition to the hollow airs and graces of those for whom art is something separate from their instinctOwing to the structure of our society, we are certainly not yet free, but we are working for tomorrow's world. A new society will follow this and then man will do, by nature, what currently demands a fierce struggle: he will be a living creature'(Constant, 1948, quoted in Willemijn Stokvis, COBRA: The Last Avant-garde Movement of the Twentieth Century, London 2004, p. 10)
Le Grand Chef Cobra (Big Chief Cobra) is one of the vibrant, cheerful, optimistic and clearly living, child-like figures that sprang almost impulsively from Appel's brush after his first visit to Copenhagen in 1948 to liaise with Danish members of Cobra. On the train journey through Germany, where food shortages abounded in the post-war period, Appel witnessed at close hand many hungry children pleading and begging in the stations and alongside the railways tracks. On his return to Amsterdam he began his 'pleading children' motif creating an important series of paintings, wood reliefs and assemblages of children crudely fashioned from painted blocks of wood and all displaying a vigorous, instinctive and good-humoured approach to image-making. For Appel, as for most of his fellow Cobra artists, children and the child's view of the world represented a unique innocence and a vitality that, after years of war, they felt held perhaps the only hope for creative renewal and development. Seeking in folk art, art brut, primitive art and above all the art of children an aesthetic uncorrupted by the Western tradition, Appel, directly sought to attain the same raw intuitive vision and instinctive approach to life and creativity that children exemplified and to use it as a creative path out of the past. In pursuing this aim, he rapidly developed a wholly intuitive approach to his work that ultimately led to him coming to revel in the fluid material nature of his paint. 'Sometimes my work looks very childish or child-like, schizophrenic or stupid', he once said, 'but, that was a good thing for me, because for me the material is the paint itself'. It was 'in the mass of paint' he said, that 'I find my imagination and go to paint it'. (Karel Appel, 'Recorded Interview with Alan Hanlon,' New York 1972)
In 1949 Appel was commissioned by the Municipality of Amsterdam to paint a mural for the wall of the canteen of Amsterdam's Town Hall and for which he painted a group of pleading children in the loose flowing semi-abstract style reminiscent in some respects of Joan Miró's work and anticipating the style of this work. The motif and the semi-abstract nature of this important mural in fact however, offended the canteen customers to such an extent that the wall was subsequently covered up for over ten years. For Appel though, this work and the many that followed it drawing on the same fluid style and the same imagery of the purity and vitality of children were powerful and natural expressions of the real. Art should be an expression of this reality Appel maintained. It is 'an expression of man and his nature, and not the idealism God-man. Like a bird singing according to its nature, like a hungry child that cries'. (K. Appel cited in A. Frankenstein. Karel Appel, New.York 1980,.p. 49.)
Le Grand Chef Cobra depicts a wide-eyed and seemingly cheerful child-like figure filling the canvas with radiant colour and form in a playful painterly manner that appears to both articulate and symbolize the innocence and joy of simple creativity. The title of the painting, later bestowed upon it as a nickname, seems to humorously refer directly to this notion of the child as an icon of vitality, fun and playfulness and as a central part of the Cobra movement's ideal.