‘In modern art, I feel closest to Van Gogh, to the vehemence of his emotions and to his revolutionary spirit. When he paints the blue of the sky, this isn’t the blue that the eye sees; its bluer than the blue of the sky, it’s the blue of his emotion. He too showed us something of life’s secret. I like the directness of expressionistic painting [..] I seek the human side of things, the side of life’
(K. Appel, quoted in E. de Wilde, M. Ragon, S. Hunter, D. Kuspit, J.-F. Lyotard (eds.), Karel Appel, Tokyo 1989, p. 12).
An explosive frenzy of paint, Cavalier Bleu (Blue Rider), is a masterful painting by Karel Appel that perfectly encapsulates his raw and expressive style. Painted in 1958, this work is a key example of Appel’s remarkable work from the late 1950s in which the human figure came to the fore. Rolling forms of heavy impasto invade the immense canvas, foaming and frothing, to create an abstract work that remains resolutely figurative. The whimsical but vivacious horse and rider emerge from his trademark slashes of bold, garishly coloured paint. The sheer scale of the canvas envelops the viewer in a triumphant celebration of painting. As the art critic Alfred Frankenstein so aptly stated, ‘Appel is merciless. He beats, cuffs, and assaults the canvas wildly from all directions at once, and one feels he is scarcely aware of the image being built up on the surface of the canvas as the result of his attack’ (A. Frankenstein, Karel Appel; The Art of Style and the Styles of Art, New York 1979, p. 10).
As its title suggests, this work takes its cue from the early expressionist movement Der Blaue Reiter that was formed in 1911 and which advocated a spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting. Artists involved in the movement desired to express spiritual truths through their art, sharing an interest in abstracted forms and prismatic colours, which they felt had spiritual values that could counteract the corruption and materialism of their age. Among others, Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky were seminal figures of the movement. Indeed, the name Blaue Reiter refers to a key motif in their work: the blue horse and rider, which was for them a symbol for moving beyond realistic representation. As the leading painter behind CoBrA, an expressionistic movement that encouraged the instinctive and uninhibited in art, Appel would almost certainly have felt an affinity with Der Blaue Reiter. His 1958 painting of the same name can be understood as a kind of homage to the movement that was paramount to the advancement of Expressionsistic in painting in Europe.
His almost sculptural handling of the paint expresses a greater awareness of textural effects than in his earlier works, from totally flat smoothness to pinnacles in relief obtained with a brush. The forms in Cavalier Bleu possess a palpable physicality, as if they were sculpted from paint to emerge as living beings. This was an intoxicating period of Appel’s artistic production; the tumult storm of these works is unparalleled in modern art. Speaking of this period he admitted ‘around 1957-58, my painting was a fight. I did not paint – I hit! With big knives I hit! My red, for instance, was blood. Now red is my space. […] To build up a painting was for me, at that time, the most fantastic feeling’ (K. Appel, quoted in Appel: Paintings, exh. cat., Wildenstein & Co. Ltd., London, 1975, unpaged). Although Appel covered a wide variety of media throughout his exceptional career, from sculpture to tapestries and colour lithographs, at the heart of his extensive oeuvre lie these large Expressionist abstractions that he made during the late 1950s. There is jubilation, joy in his painting, qualities that propelled him to the front of international artistic scene. It was from this time period that he became, and has remained to this day, one of the most original artists of our time.