Of all the Dutch artists who were among the founders of the Cobra movement in 1948, Karel Appel was arguably the one who was the most radical exponent of the movement’s experimental bias. From the very beginning his work was characterised by his search for new ways of expression. While he was known as a painter, Appel also experimented with other media and techniques. Of all the Dutch artists who were among the founders of the Cobra movement in 1948, Karel Appel was arguably the one who was the most radical exponent of the movement’s experimental bias. From the very beginning his work was characterised by his search for new ways of expression. While he was known as a painter, Appel also experimented with other media and techniques. From the time he left the Amsterdam State Academy of Art in the mid-1940s, he explored all the possibilities of the many transitional forms between two-dimensional and sculptural space, i.e. between painting and three-dimensional objects. Appel’s predilection for expanding the range of materials used was also related to the scale of the work: the more experience he gained and the more his economic circumstances improved, the larger the works became. There was his legendary performance from 1958 in which Appel, hanging from a helicopter, attacked with dripping paint a 150-square metre piece of paper lying beneath him on the ground.
Even Appel’s interest in monumental commissions, which increased as his reputation grew after the mid-1950s, can be partly explained out of his need for spatial expansion and for stretching the boundaries of expression. In one of his earliest monumental works, the 1949 painting of the foyer to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, his urge to conquer space with his paintbrush is already in evidence. The childlike fantasy figures and animals burst the parameters of the wall, happily making the most of the ceiling and doors as well.
Between 1950 and 1972, Appel produced seven monumental works in Rotterdam, four of which were permanent and three temporary. At first it was chiefly Jaap Bakema – the architect of large-scale building projects and manifestations who gave visual expression to post-war Rotterdam’s dynamic verve – who involved Appel in his projects. Bakema challenged Appel to express his urge for the monolithic in giant three-dimensional constructions as well as paintings. The most imaginative of these are undoubtedly Life Tree, a 20-metre high, prickly assemblage of painted Triplex sheeting to mark the Rotterdam Ahoy’ exhibition (1950) and Wall of Energy (1955), a 100-metre wide wall painting done for the E’55 exhibition. The last commission from Bakema was for a 40-metre long relief for the 1960 Floriade agricultural show, and like the other two pieces was of a temporary nature. Appel’s more permanent works were tapestries for the Levensverzekeringsmaatschappij Utrecht (an insurance company) in 1961 and for Europoint in 1972, as well as a ceramic tile frieze for Rotterdam’s Polytechnic School of Economics (1966/1967) and a design for a stained-glass-in-concrete relief for the entrance to the city’s Hofplein Theatre.
The relief fits in with the series of earlier Rotterdam projects. Due to its size – 6 x 24 metres – and pronounced plasticity it provides a striking accent in the 220-metre wide wall of the theatre, which is part of the Technikon, a large-scale school complex designed by the Rotterdam architectural studio of Maaskant, Van Dommelen, Kroos and Senf. The complex, comprising three separate but linked buildings in a U-shape, was built between 1961 and 1970. The building’s budget included a sum for a work of art as part of the Percent for Art scheme. In view of the fact that building costs were high, so was the money available for art. Those involved agreed that this should be spent on one evocative work. After considering various locations for a free-standing sculpture it was finally decided to have a mainly two-dimensional work above the entrance to the Hofplein Theatre on the inner courtyard of the complex. On architect Hugh Maaskant’s recommendation – who had kept in touch with Appel since the early 1950s –- Rotterdam council held initial talks with the artist in 1963 and 1964. Appel’s first design for a stained-glass wall was received with enthusiasm. However, its execution was technically highly complicated and thus not financially viable. In the summer of 1964 Appel presented a modified design in the form of a model which resolved the technical difficulties by incorporating the stained glass into a concrete skeleton. The skeleton was made on site by the concrete being poured into a two-part wooden mould. Two cranes were then needed to hoist both parts, which together weighed 60 tons, into place and link them together. The sheets of coloured glass were then applied and in May 1970, six years after the design was first mooted, the relief was unveiled by Queen Juliana.
The glass-in-concrete relief reflects in a non-emphatic, yet inventive manner Appel’s tendency to draw three-dimensional and two-dimensional visual elements together in one work. The erratic divided framework composes the flat surface and helps to build up the picture while the concrete elements, that recede and protrude by turn, give the wall an almost sculptural quality. Within the concrete framework Appel has used contrasting, vividly coloured glass to elaborate on the various visual elements. Four or five immense, primitively depicted human or animal forms – sometimes only suggested by large round eyes – loom out of an ostensibly abstract composition. Together these figures, somersaulting through each other, form a burlesque festive procession that appears to continue to the right and left beyond the framework.
Formally and thematically the relief is clearly linked to similar work by Appel from the mid-1960s. The combination of two- and three-dimensional elements is comparable to the painted multiplex reliefs he made in his French studio, while the shapes and colours tie in with his paintings and graphic work from that time. Obviously under the influence of Pop Art, Appel abandoned the dynamic thick impasto, the emphasis on materials and the often ominous atmosphere that distinguished his post-Cobra paintings for eminently flat compositions comprising large planes of colour and a bright palette. The expressive power of these motifs – for which glass is especially suited – is shown to maximum effect in the Rotterdam relief.
As well as reflecting Appel’s visual idiom from the Cobra period, the relief recalls a classical visual formula. Its extended size, the iconography of a group of interrelated figures and the placing above a doorway is a contemporary interpretation of a frieze from antiquity. However, this frieze – because of its subject matter and colourful ebullient aura – is more playful and festive than heroic or sacred. In this capacity it is absolutely in keeping with the present function of the site – a children’s theatre.
Fluks, M., M. Vink, S. Umberto Barbieri (eds), Architect H.A. Maaskant (1907-1977), Amsterdam 1983. / Houts, C. van, Karel Appel. De biografie, Amsterdam 2000. / Exhib. cat. Karel Appel, The Hague (Galerie Nova Spectra) 1981. / Exhib. cat. Cobra 3 dimensionaal, Amstelveen (Cobra Museum for Modern Art) 1998. / Stokvis, W., Cobra. De weg naar spontaniteit, Blaricum, 2001.