Painted in 1951, Karel Appel’s La Fleur et les oiseaux (The Flower and the Birds) is a joyful burst of lyrical colour. A bright and absorbing blue covers much of the canvas, save for a small window of white in the upper left-hand corner. At the centre stands a large bird with a single band of teal flashes on his face; his body is a mosaic of colour – carmine, navy, yellow and radiant white – outlined in black tracery reminiscent of a stained-glass panel. A second bird of ochre and streaky black rests in the window. Despite their stilled almost pensive forms, both are vivacious and cheerful: a whimsical representation in brilliant paint.
As with so many artists of his generation, Appel’s art emerged as a direct response to the existential horrors of World War II. In its immediate aftermath, the influential and international CoBrA movement emerged, of which Appel was a co-founder. CoBrA took ‘examples from those forms of art which appeared not to have been tainted with the rules and conventions of the Western World…The artists, in fact, were performing a conscious regression, a return to the archetypical images of fantasy thought to lie hidden under the many layers of the human subconscious’ (W. Stokvis, Cobra: An International Movement in Art after the Second World War, Barcelona, 1987, p. 7). Rooted in liberal and capacious exploration, CoBrA’s artists worked in a variety of mediums including painting, ceramics and poetry; it was, as the manifesto read, ‘a people’s art’ that ‘set no aesthetic norms’ (C. Nieuwenhuys, ‘Manifesto’, 1948, reprinted in W. Stokvis, Cobra: An International Movement in Art after the Second World War, Barcelona, 1987, pp. 29, 30). Adhering to a new expressionism seeped in primitive and naïve forms, Appel and the members of CoBrA drew upon images of childlike and animalistic imagery. When asked what moved him, he replied, 'I do not know. I am always inspired, it is life' (K Appel quoted in A. Frankenstein, Karel Appel, New York 1980, p.98).
La Fleur et les oiseaux was painted the year the Appel left CoBrA and moved to Paris, and the painting is a stunning amalgamation of the artist’s practice at a crucial juncture in his career, at once anticipatory of his future work in Paris and a summation of the CoBrA ethos. Indeed, while drawing on the roster of visual motifs he had long investigated, in La fleur et les oiseaux, Appel began to apply colour with a new sculptural force. The painterly black outlines, in particular, speak to the delineates developments in his visual vocabulary, here, producing a woodblock-like effect which demarcates the kaleidoscopic hues. The painting is a delightful and jovial expression of life: Appel said, ‘Art 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 quoted in A. Frankenstein, Karel Appel, New York 1980, p. 60). In La fleur et les oiseaux, the artist suggests a world at its most wonderful and offers new visual language to reconcile the experience of being.