Wide-eyed and innocent, women, children and animals crowded together on the canvas, with their gazes all fixed on the viewer, affronting and accusing the war-torn world outside. Painted in 1950 Femme, Soleil, Ville is a vibrant yet haunting image of life dating from the zenith of Karel Appel's involvement with the Cobra movement. Appel's work during the Cobra period (1948-51) conjured strong expressionistic and colourful visions of the inherent vitality and truth of such elementary subjects as animals and children by using raw and powerfully constructed images of them as a kind of iconography of protest.
The present lot was executed around Appel's move to Paris, in those days the centre of the Cobra activities. This move had an immediate and beneficial effect on his work. Although completely unrecognized in France except by his circle of Northern European contemporaries, his art immediately flourished there. One year earlier, in 1949, he had been commissioned to create a mural to decorate a wall in Amsterdam's City Hall. The result, Vragende kinderen-Inquiring Children, was covered up immediately after a storm of public and media protest. Paris provided some solace for the embattled artist. He was almost anonymous in the French capital, yet his increased isolation in fact forced him to focus more on his art. Speaking no French, painting became his main source of expression and release. However, on his arrival in Paris his brushwork, and indeed his whole act of creation, became more spontaneous and physical. Although the palette and the wide faces in Femme, Soleil, Ville retain obvious similarities with Vragende Kinderen, Appel's application of the paint is already far more free.
Although Appel had sought a childlike view of the world in his earlier work, it was only on his return to Paris in 1950 that he was truly released from the burden of all his artistic teachings. Seeking inspiration from the primitive peoples with their totems and magic signs and from unspoiled aspects of Western culture such as folk art, naive art and above all the art of children, he wanted his art to express the same rawness and freshness. Using vibrant, unmixed colours of red, yellow and white, and broad brush strokes, Karel Appel creates his friendly, innocent child-like beings and animals. In Femme, Soleil, Ville he depicts a woman seemingly floating above the bright shining sun. Underneath the sun one discovers children and the less distinct forms that look like city elements, the children seem to be with their hands in the air pointing towards the sun and the woman, maybe asking or begging for something. The canvas looks like being intensely packed with a variety of living forms. In Femme, Soleil, Ville a magic and seemingly joyful archaic world of nature is depicted in one cohesive mass of deeply textured and brilliantly coloured paint. As if seen through the eyes of a child, the work radiates uncomplicated happiness and joy.
Like many of his generation, Appel's art had grown out of a direct response to the existential horror of the Second World War. Embracing a new kind of Primitive Expressionism and consciously avoiding all trappings of Western thought or ideology Appel and the other artists of the Cobra group sought out the primal expressions of primitive cultures, also the visions of animals or children and the Outsider Art of so-called modern primitives and the artistic expressions of the mentally insane. Using the material and imagery of the run-down broken streets of Post-War Amsterdam and the simple iconography and vision of graffiti and children's art as his source material, Appel sought to give voice in his painting to the primal essence of life. In this Post-War world of existential and material desolation the uncorrupted and innocent viewpoint of the child, the primitive and the animal was considered the only worthy vision of life, the only hope for art.
"Sometimes my work looks very childish, or child-like, schizophrenic or stupid, you know. But that was a good thing for me. As for me the material is the paint itself. In the mass of paint, I find my imagination and paint it."
(In a recorded interview with Alan Hanlon, New York, 1972.)
The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels has kindly requested the present lot on loan for their Cobra exhibition from 7 November 2008 until 25 January 2009.