top of page

The man behind the painting

Have you ever taken a good look at the enormous painting that enriches the E hall? What do you know about it? Hell, do you even know who painted it? If not, let’s change that right about now.

The war years

La Folie des Rues, as the painting is called, was painted by Dutch artist Karel Appel back in 1989. Appel, by many considered to have been an expressionist, was born and raised in Amsterdam. He knew that he wanted to become a painter from when he was very young, but ‘only’ produced his first real painting at the age of fourteen — a still life of a fruit basket. For his fifteenth birthday, his wealthy uncle Karel Chevalier gave him a paint set and an easel. An avid amateur painter himself, Chevalier gave his namesake some lessons in painting. However, his parents weren’t all too happy with this development; they wanted him to become a hairdresser instead, just like his father. In fact, Appel had already been working in his father’s barbershop for a few years when in 1942, he finally decided to go and study art — a choice made with the heart, and with the heart alone. His parents, unhappy with this decision, then kicked him out of the house. Yep, things were a lot tougher then! And that included the political situation, because this was all going on in the middle of the Second World War. At the start of the Dutch famine of 1944, Appel fled his house in fear of being caught by the German occupiers, whom he refused to work for. He spent a year traveling across the country, heading towards his brother, who lived in the East. This was no time for art; this was sheer survival.

Luckily, survive is what he did. After the war, Appel returned to Amsterdam, but he was obviously weakened. He was practically back at square one, but he managed to fight his way back into the business. Inspired by other painters, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, but particularly Jean Dubuffet, he started developing his own style: bright colours, sharp contours, and seemingly simple shapes. Furthermore, he started experimenting with materials other than paint. In 1947, he even started sculpting — that is, with all kinds of used materials. Sadly, his peers never gave him much credit for any of this work, not lastly because they didn’t think of them as sculptures to begin with. His funniest creation would have to be something that he once made in his attic, for which he used wood that once belonged to his attic’s windows, an old broom, and even a vacuum cleaner hose (!). Art? I suggest that you decide for yourself, but this was a man clearly not afraid of others’ opinions.

The Cobra years

In 1948, Appel co-created the Experimental Group in Holland with some of his closest friends from art school. This was essentially the predecessor of the Cobra movement, often stylised CoBrA (from Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam). While the group’s work was getting rather poor reviews within the Netherlands itself, the work was much higher acclaimed in Denmark, and so they focused their attention on Copenhagen. To the group’s own surprise, it then got a completely unexpected invitation from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949, but this would turn out to be a big failure. Appel, disappointed with the seemingly overly critical Dutch press, then moved to Paris in 1950, where his work got a much better response. He decided to settle there, and this is where he developed his international reputation. He did so by traveling to Brazil, Mexico, the United States, and the former Yugoslavia. His international breakthrough came in 1953, when his work was exhibited during the São Paolo Art Biennial, followed by solo exhibitions in New York and Paris. During this time, Cobra fell apart, and Appel slowly adopted an increasingly wilder impasto style in the process. This style is characterised by the use of very thick brushstrokes — or, in Appel’s case, by literally throwing the paint onto the canvas, producing big clots of paint. See the video below!

CC: Folia

The painting itself

Although it wasn’t until a few decades later that Appel painted the monster that has been covering the wall of the E hall for almost two decades now, this style can still be seen in La Folie des Rues. As the title already suggests, it represents innovative movements that, according to Appel, initially always manifest themselves in the ‘frenzy of the streets’, as the painting depicts. It’s made up of two almost identical but contrasting halves, and at 4×14 metres, it takes up as much as 56 square metres in total. It actually seemed very unlikely that this painting would end up in our university’s hands at all. The aforementioned Stedelijk Museum was the first to show interest in the painting, but its sheer size proved to be too much of a problem for them. It was then transported to the Hague to put it up in the new town hall there, but alas, the same problem arose. Finally, the Parisian Opéra faced similar problems, and it was only at this point that the University of Amsterdam came into the picture. It’s not quite clear how much was paid for the painting, but it has been said that it was insured for one million Dutch guilders. Using the exact exchange rate, this represents 453,870 euros today, or just over 8,000 euros per square metre. If that isn’t a bargain, then I don’t know what is!

The final years

Interestingly, Appel once said that he was just “messing about” most of the time. While he wouldn’t have been the first Amsterdammer to be falsely modest, it does seem genuinely true when you see the man at work. In any case, it sure caused a lot of controversy at the time. However, it’s naive to think that Appel went about his work without preparing well. Although he usually painted in a very spontaneous way — he was an expressionist, after all — that doesn’t mean that he didn’t carefully select his paint and other materials before he started working. His critics often say that any random child in kindergarten could produce results similar to that of Appel’s, but this is an underestimation of the sophistication than can be found in his work. In order to prove that, I hereby cordially invite whoever is entitled to that opinion to our faculty’s main hall. Alternatively, they could pay a visit to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague one day soon, where an exhibition about his work is being held until May 16th. It features 67 paintings, 12 sculptures, and more than 60 sketches, so it makes a great introduction to anyone who’s interested in learning more about the founding father of Cobra.

Towards the end of his life, Appel’s work slowly but surely found its way into the bands of fellow Dutchmen after all. However, the rather elitist press always remained very critical of his work. Karel Appel died on May 3rd, 2006, aged 85. He suffered from a heart ailment. Years before his death, Appel established the Karel Appel Foundation, whose purpose is to preserve his artworks. Let’s cherish the fact that we can marvel at one such a painting every time we walk into our faculty’s main hall!


bottom of page