‘A painting is no longer a construction of colours and lines, but an animal, a night, a scream, a human being and one and indivisible’ – K. APPEL
With widened, staring eyes and reaching, grasping arms, roughly-drawn silhouettes emerge from a fragmented, agitated darkness. A turbulent, swirling mass of blue and yellow, in which line and colour fuse together, Femme, Enfant et Animal, 1953, is a prime example of the fluent, expressionistic style Karel Appel developed during the late CoBrA period. Drawing together the naïveté of children’s drawings and the graphic simplicity of folk motifs, Appel sought to create a new art which escaped the constraints of the bourgeoisie, and which was infused, instead, with the heady freedom of a newly-liberated Europe. ‘A painting is no longer a construction of colours and lines,’ the artist wrote, ‘but an animal, a night, a scream, a human being and one and indivisible’ (K. Appel, quoted in E. Flomenhaft, The Roots and Development of CoBrA Art, New York 1985, p. 19).
By 1950, the furious energy which had driven CoBrA was burning out. Appel, dogged by criticism for the ambition and audacity of his work, decided to make a permanent move to Paris, seeking new inspiration in the centre of the European art world. ‘It was the time of existentialism, of Juliette Greco in Tabou, of New Orleans jazz in the “cave” Vieux Colombiers,’ he later recalled. Particularly, Appel was struck by the work of Jean Dubuffet, in whose work, he saw a common fascination with the primitive and the naive, rendered with a simplicity and purity of technique. ‘Dubuffet was totally different from all those painters of the École de Paris,’ Appel wrote admiringly. ‘Dubuffet gave us the stimulus to break away, to conquer a new expression, a new dimension, a new space.’ (K. Appel, quoted in Appel, exh. cat., Osaka, The National Museum of Art, 1989, p. 12).
The influential French art critic Michel Tapié saw this affinity too: in 1952, just one year after the end of CoBrA , Appel became associated with Art Informel, alongside Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier and Hans Hartung. Tapié included the young Dutch artist in his exhibition Signifiants de l’informel, and in his definitive text on Informel, Un Art autre. Common to the Informel artists was their rejection of the classical tradition: ‘They behave with casual indifference to the conventional wisdom, and act without form, in a profound anarchy,’ Tapié asserted. Their works instead embraced spontaneity and speed, seeking to liberate the unconscious in a storm of formless – informel – and gestural mark-marking. For Tapié, Appel and his fellow artists were heroic, Nietzschean individuals, asserting their authenticity against the void: ‘The Occidental world is finally discovering the Sign; it explodes it in the vehemence of transcendental calligraphy, of a hyper-significance intoxicated with the cruel vertigo of a pure future’ (M. Tapié, ‘Un Art Autre’, 1952, reproduced in C. Harrison (ed.), Art in Theory 1900-1990, Oxford 1993, p. 620).
Though he partook in the wild abandon of Informel, Appel never quite let go of his hold on figuration. On the surface of Femme, Enfant et Animal, Appel brings together his evocatively symbolic motifs: the child effigy, innocent and poignant, who confronts his adult audience with hollow eyes; and the fantastical, tooth-gnashing beast, his hide incised with vertical and horizontal marks. In a testament to Appel’s new lyricism, to his spontaneity and improvisation, these figures threaten to dissolve into the storm of impasto, their essence barely contained by their outlines. All around them, in an unusually sombre palette of blues and blacks, the magical landscape heaves and writhes. Appel regarded blue as the most introspective colour, its shades allowing the artist to draw upon the spectrum of emotional expressiveness: ‘In modern art, I feel closest to Van Gogh, to the vehemence of his emotions and to his revolutionary spirit. When he paints the blue of the sky, this isn’t the blue that the eye sees; it’s bluer than the blue of the sky, it’s the blue of his emotion. He, too, showed us something of life’s secret’ (K. Appel, quoted in Appel, exh. cat., Osaka, The National Museum of Art, 1989, p. 12). Melding chaos and catastrophe, mastering billowing paint, in Femme, Enfant et Animal Appel risks formlessness, snatching figuration back from the void to create a work rich in allegorical inference.