"Painting is a tangible, sensual experiencing, intensely moved by the joy and the tragedy of man. A spatial experiencing, fed by instinct, becomes a living shape. The atmosphere I inhale and make tangible by my paint is an expression of my era." (Karel Appel, "A statement" 1950. cited in Karel Appel : Paintings 1980-85. exh. cat., Arnolfini Gallery 1986, p. 13)
For Karel Appel painting is an unconscious and necessary act of magic that interacts with the material of the world and brings forth life. "I never try to make a painting, but a chunk of life", Appel declared in 1953, "I try to make the impossible possible. What is happening I cannot forsee; it is a surprise. Painting, like passion, is an emotion full of truth and rings a living sound like the roar coming from a lion's breast." ("My Paint is like a Rocket" c. 1953 reproduced in "Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds.), University of California Press 1996, p. 209)
L'exode - le monde floral (The exodus - the floral world) is an early work from the high point of Appel's career, when, after the demise of the CoBrA movement in which he had played a central role in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the artist had moved, independently, to Paris. There, in the French capital, his art underwent a new transformation and, removed from the restriction of any need to adhere to a group aesthetic or ideology, it asserted a wider and more universal sense of freedom.
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, the visions of animals or children, 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.
Appel's work during the CoBrA period (1947-51) 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. By 1953, however, his painterly practice had begun to develop in such a way that the immediacy and spontaneity of painting, the pure freedom involved within the unconscious act of painting itself, was becoming all-important for him. He was beginning to realize that the most powerful and surprising expressions of these basic elements were achieved not by premeditation but by a spontaneous and unconscious interaction with the material of paint. "What counts for me", he has said, " is impulse, energy, speed action. That's when the really unexpected things happen; the true expressive image that rises undefinably out of the mass of matter, speed and colour." (Karel Appel T. Brakeley (ed.), New York 1980, p. 164.)
The paintings that Appel began to make in 1953 mark the artist's first completely unfettered engagement with his materials, and resulted in a series of extraordinarily intense and vibrant expressions that hover between abstraction and figuration. Great swirling sweeps of brilliant colour vie with one another and conjure pictogram-like images out of the different forms that emerge from a shimmering field of colour. Like scorched or branded cave paintings of archetypal figures seeming to emerge from the mists of a dream, Appel's powerful graphic forms seem to capture the essential vitality of the beasts and figures that emerge from the fierce energy of his brushwork. In L'exode - le monde floral a magic and seemingly joyful archaic world of nature is depicted in one cohesive mass of deeply textured and brilliantly coloured paint. Above a blooming mass of flowers the figure of a bird partially emerges from the bold sweeping integrated forms, and along with the less distinct forms of several other animals or personages, helps to generate a sense of the canvas being intensely packed with a variety of living forms. "In the mass of paint," Appel has said, "I find my imagination and go to paint it." (recorded interview with Alan Hanlon, New York 1972). As a work like L'exode - le monde floral clearly shows, not only is Appel's intention to penetrate this essential mystery of his creativity but also to lay open his working process and demonstrate this mystical partnership between artist and material. Appel's vital, free-flowing style both relies on the distinctly abstract nature of his medium and maintains it. The forms that can be found emerging from his energized brush are now, unlike in his earlier more premeditated work, never allowed to assert a complete independence from the mystery of their unconscious origins. In this way Appel demonstrates what he had recently come to believe, that the subject matter of his art lay not in his choice or discovery of imagery but, ultimately, in the paint itself. "Sometimes my work looks very childish, or child-like, schizophrenic or stupid, you know... but that was a good thing for me, because for me, the material is the paint itself." (ibid)