With eyes the size of saucers, full-frontal swollen heads and giraffe-like necks, Karel Appel's monumental figures have a powerful presence. Painted between 1951 and 1952 when the CoBrA movement was coming to an end in Europe, these majestic Personnages (see also following Lot) played a key role in articulating the prevalent existentialist philosophy of the day. Conceived in a climate in which the previously battered and torn "body" of Europe was undergoing a tangible reconstruction after the horrors of World War II, Existentialism promoted the understanding that man was alone in this alien world and that responsibility ultimately resided within the individual. This doctrine of thinking, widespread in Europe at the time, brought with it a renewed interest in the human figure.
Using vibrant, primary colours of red, yellow and blue and broad thick brushstrokes, Karel Appel sought to convey in paint a positive message of hope and optimism. To this end, the CoBrA artists looked to the world of the primitive, finding their inspiration in elements drawn from past cultures, such as totem poles, masks, prehistoric painting and folk art. They also attempted to imitate the innocence and naiveté found in the work of children. In these diverse elements, the CoBrA artists perceived a freshness and spontaneity that they saw as lacking in art in Post-War Europe.
"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. In the mass of paint, I find my imagination and go to paint it." (Karel Appel in a recorded interview with Alan Hanlon, New York 1972.)
Appel's figures are painted with free and heavy brushstrokes, possessing an exuberance and an almost comical air. With bloated heads and stomachs, his figures press onto the sides of the canvas, looking as Kenneth Sawyer has identified as, "images curiously out of scale, contained, but only just contained, like prisoners, in their rectangles". If these figures were allowed to escape, "they would explode, like a puffball, in tensile fury". (in: Appel Paintings, Herbert Read, London 1975).
The use of bold, raw colour and line imbues the figures with emotional energy. In the works we recognise the iconography of the child - the liberal use of primary colour, thickness of line and distortion of form. They are painted with a child-like naiveté, but steeped in a very sophisticated understanding of the frailty of human existence.