Karel Appel, in context
Upon entering the West gallery of the Zwig Foundation Collection, one of Karel Appel's signature bold faces stares intensely at us. Though it is initially one of the more eye-catching pieces in the space, a closer look at the other works can provide insights into the complexities of Grande Tete (1969). Across from Appel's vibrant piece sits a work by his contemporary, Op-Artist, Victor Vasarely. Visually, the pieces are contradictory, but when we consider their contextual impetus, we can access a new understanding of the artists' motivations. Furthermore, Appel sought out a variety of influences throughout his career. Art from Africa, the South Pacific, and Indonesia provided many European artists with a new direction through which to pursue their craft. Appel was similarly moved by these works, taking the unsophisticated and unpretentious artistic styles as a prominent motivator behind his work. This space invites us to see Grande Tete within its context; it gives us a glimpse into Appel's world, both through his work and the work of others.
The turn of the twentieth century gave rise to a rebellious attitude in art, and a desire to push it to the avant-garde and beyond. Born in Amsterdam in 1921, Appel was a prominent proponent of this rebellion. He formed and participated in multiple artist collectives, most notably, the innovative group CoBrA. Formed by a group from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, the name is a portmanteau recognizing the artists’ origins. Inspired by the work of artists such as Paul Klee and Joan Miró, CoBrA artists explored a fresh style of art making that allowed for vast stretches of colour and abstracted figures melding human and animal forms. In 1950, Appel moved to Paris where he found international recognition. He began exhibiting around the world from Brussels to Canada, and he was commissioned to create murals throughout numerous public buildings. As his career progressed, so too did his desire to push art to its experimental extreme. His work is lively and rebellious and continues to expand our understanding of human perception and symbolic form.
Though he is well known for his signature checkered pieces, Victor Vasarely began working in Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism. Vasarely explored what was possible through his canvas, pushing forms to new extremes to create optical effects and new visual languages. By altering human and animal forms, both Vasarely and Appel sought to push against tradition. Through his painting and mural work, Appel created expressionistic forms that challenge established customs within art history. His work is both visually appealing and mentally demanding, a quality shared with the work of Vasarely. Though their work may seem oppositional in many ways, both artists provide us with a space in which to expand our visual understanding of the world. Both artists create an opportunity to investigate shape, form, and colour, confronting tradition with new perspectives.
Furthermore, within the Zwig Collection, we are offered the opportunity to examine what was a significant artistic influence for many artists. Both the way of life and the tribal and artistic motifs common in Africa, Indonesia, and the South Pacific have long been an influence within European art. Artists such as Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso have appropriated aspects of many cultures within their art, creating a groundbreaking move within Modernism. Such work that was neither pretentious or sophisticated also acted as a significant influence for Karel Appel. In Grande Tete, we can see this influence emerge. Appel does not focus on anatomical accuracy, but rather, he uses his paintbrush to create a passionate and suggestive portrait. It is the face of emotion and expression; it is a face that places inner turmoil and feeling on its exterior and uses a structure as only a loose suggestion. Inspired by a variety of what was once called “primitive” art, Karel Appel creates work that is complex and captivating. His paintings draw us in, not because we can recognize the eyes we look into, but because we do not.
Within the context of Karel Appel's contemporaries and influences, the Zwig Collection brings his work into art history. In this space, his intentions are more palpable and his interests more apparent. Appel was never concerned with logical and structured depictions of reality; instead, he was interested in pushing human and animal forms to their passionate and expressive limits. This painting, in particular, demonstrates the expressive features of the human face. The eyes, nose, and mouth are powerful features that offer us access to the inner workings of those at whom we look.