A painting is not a construction of colours and lines. But an animal. A night, a cry, a person, or all of that together (L. Bright, trans. C. Nieuwenhuys, ‘Manifesto’, in Reflex, no. 1, 8 October 1948, p. 4).
Painted in 1948, the seminal year in which the CoBrA group was formed, Karel Appel's Dier is an image which perfectly encapsulates his early artistic practice. The howling figure, suspended between humanity and bestiality, is an embodiment of Appel's intention to break away from the refined artistic styles espoused throughout Europe in the years immediately following the Second World War, and to create instead an art which reflected the chaos to which the world had been subjected. Dier in particular can be seen to exemplify Appel’s artistic manifesto. In the journal Reflex, published in the same year in which Dier was painted, the CoBrA conception of painting was explained: ‘not a construction of colours and lines. But an animal. A night, a cry, a person, or all of that together’ (L. Bright, trans. C. Nieuwenhuys, ‘Manifesto’, in Reflex, no. 1, 8 October 1948, p. 4). In this sense the work embodies the CoBrA’s vital response to the Second World War, its optimistic gaze towards a future of life, in a moment when most of European art practices were stuck in mourning.
The childlike spontaneity which typified the work of the CoBrA artists is explicit in Dier. The form of the creature is marked out in bold slashes of white against a lushly textured background. The vigour of Appel's application of paint is immediately clear, as swathes of thick impasto collide with one another across the canvas, creating a frenetic energy which seems to enliven the form of the creature with a striking vitality. Appel's fondness for juxtaposing the bold primary colours of children's art is also evident; strong crimson overlaps with deep indigo blue, which is in turn overlaid by the warm yellow of the animal's belly. This primitive, instinctual approach to the rendering of form and colour is that which characterised Appel's practice throughout his life.
The subject may be bestial, but there is no question that it is treated with the utmost humanity. The anthropomorphic face, with its enlarged eyes and gaping mouth, seems to cry out to the viewer. As Christian Dotremont, a fellow member of CoBrA, commented, 'Appel captures the beast, but he is on the beast's side. He doesn't kill it' (C. Dotremont, quoted in A. Frankenstein, Karel Appel, New York 1980, p. 14.) The beast of Dier, a representation of the honest and authentic in mankind, is an illustration of the human condition in the age in which Appel painted: an age which the members of the CoBrA movement had resolved to depict with veracity.