Karel Appel and Rotterdam

Siebe Thissen 31.10.2019
Ary Groeneveld, Rotterdam City Archives collection

Karel Appel had already experimented with it in America, but not yet in the Netherlands. Painting for an audience. Live. That honor went to Rotterdam. On 27 in May 1974, the Paris-based painter would give a guest lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts. Appel had something to do with Rotterdam. His muse and great love, Machteld van der Groen, came from Blijdorp. He had met her when she was taking fashion and drawing classes at the academy and he was making a giant mural for the E55 city event. Machteld would become a fashion model for the Spanish fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga. She brought Appel into contact with the circle of friends of Louis van Roode, the legendary Rotterdam artist who took his own name in 1964. Machteld itself would not grow old either. She died in 1970 after a long illness.

Appel did not merely have an amorous bond with Rotterdam. Between 1950 and 1972 he had realized seven monumental works in the city. He was therefore able to boast of a special contribution to the beautification of the city of Maas when he traveled from France to the art academy. He arrived in a limousine and was welcomed in Rotterdam to music by the British keyboard king Rick Wakeman. However, little came of the announced guest lecture. "A painter is not used to speaking," said Appel. He would rather answer 'burning questions' from students. When questions did not arise, he decided to paint on the spot. A reporter from The Free People was present. 'Karel Appel takes a tube of paint from the table, clasps it with both hands and sprays the tube into thick linen from left to right on the linen. The color is yellow. He spreads the paint with a palette knife. A second tube is sprayed empty. Red. Up. Down. The master walks backwards. Looks. Back to the donkey. The outside of his left middle finger glides over the red. The string becomes a thick line. New tube. Black. New tube. Is still closed. The palette knife cuts through the tube. Brown blobs clatter next to the picture. The audience laughs. Green. Palette knife over it. Middle finger through it. Blue. Light blue. Dark blue. Palette knife and finger. White. The paint drips from the canvas onto the floor. Apple requires a finger cloth '.

After he had used up his supply of paint, he asked the room what he had done. Because his listeners were still silent, he himself spoke: "I made a spontaneous sketch of oil paint. What do you see in it? ' Silence again. Appel continued: 'This sketch is a landscape, spatial representation that must grow even further. I let such a sketch dry for two days and then I start again. I'm going to work slower and slower. Every lick must touch. Sometimes I only do one lick in a week. First the color touches me and only then do I see the shape and the subject. This is preceded by a fight '.

The fact that the Rotterdam students did not dare to enter into a conversation with the master was of course related to his status. Apple was a giant. An impressive physical appearance too. In 1974 he was still considered a herald of freedom. That fame was created shortly after the Second World War (although he could have studied during the war thanks to a scholarship from the occupier). Many reconstruction architects praised his sense of freedom, his impropriety, his lack of inhibitions. They themselves felt bound to laws, rules, financiers and clients. Appel compensated for the syrupiness that characterized their professional practice, according to architect Jaap Bakema, one of his Rotterdam admirers and a passionate lover of modern art. Appel, in turn, was impressed by the many tough designs made in concrete in the Rotterdam of reconstruction. The architectural firm Van den Broek and Bakema had brought him to Maasstad in 1950. The large exhibition Rotterdam Ahoy was meant to show the resurrection of Rotterdam and its port, but also to show that art was more vital than ever.

AHOY 1950: THE LIFE TREE

Bakema challenged Appel. He had the artist make huge buildings and paintings. The most striking construction on Rotterdam Ahoy, reaching far into the ridge of the main hall, was the Tree of life (1950). This was a 20-meter-high picket, made up of a collection of painted plywood plates, sawn out in the form of giant leaves that were painted red, blue, black and white. With his tree, Appel not only symbolized the flourishing of the city of Rotterdam, but also celebrated freedom (and the freedom of art in particular). Bakema spoke of 'an explosion of primal forces'. And the director of the Port Authority, Nico Koomans, was even inspired to write a poem that he left next to the tree.

Reporters who saw the artist at work looked their eyes out. "There are artists you can keep at peace for a civil servant or drugstore," wrote The Free People. 'Apple is not. While everyone is puffing, Appel is wearing a thick woolen shirt. Although sunny weather is expected, the artist has wrapped himself in a waterproof jacket with a flap against rain. The newspaper called the Tree of life excellent and architectural. Appel had succeeded in 'fighting' the monotonous space and he had created a 'colorful, unexpected accent'. That was nice, but the artwork could not be viewed separately from the phenomenon itself: 'I see him there - just standing there; in his yellow blouse with large checks, in his indigo blue trousers with legs down to his calves, with his black hair, which seems to advertise: "You are thinking - the artist is here". You have to see Apple Bézig. Running from left to right, climbing the ever-higher tree. His work is an enormous adventure, in which all those involved are dragged along like in a drunkenness. Karel Appel. He is the most exotic, surrealistic figure that one can meet at this exhibition market. "

With the demolition of the manifestation came the Tree of life at its end. The reviewer of The Free People barely kept his eyes dry. 'Dear readers, it is to cry. Nothing is left of the glorious, colorful inventory. Karel Appel is mourning Tree of life, which he wants to immortalize once more on the sensitive photo plate. Like a pilgrim, he went to the place where thousands of mortals admired (or not) the fruit of his artistic spirit; where people turned their faces to a grimace because they did not understand the meaning of his creation. It has been an expensive tree. He cost two and a half mille. Before two 24 hours have elapsed, the tree of Appel will have fallen apart under the hammer blows into shreds of plywood boards and trellis, which are going to move to youth organizations, whose members will make bread boards, and spoon and fork trays from it. Then Appel turns, resolutely, and his footsteps are lost in the hollow sound of pounding hammers and crackling tricks.

E55: WALL OF ENERGY

Appel was again present five years later during the Energie 1955 event, or in a shorter way: E55. This time Appel from Bakema was offered the more than one hundred meter long and three meter high wall of the first pavilion at the entrance. A mural had to come here. The theme was indeed People & Energy, but Appel was free to let his imagination run free. He got it from the architect carte blanche. "Appel feels wonderfully at home in Rotterdam," wrote The Free People not without pride. The artist had traveled from Paris in a small Renault to Rotterdam. First of all, he inspected the area, spoke enthusiastically about the organization, then tested the tarpaulin to protect his painting from the rain, and finally asked for screens that would make it impossible for the viewers to see the work - "It must of course remain a surprise "said Apple. He was given 30 days to complete the work. This is how the Wall of the Energy (1955), again a gigantic, very voluptuous and colorful wall painting. The colors were so bright and the shapes so intrusive that the work left no one untouched. This was pure energy. According to Bakema, Appel had expressed the tension between 'the prehistoric unformed chaos' and the 'awesome technical possibilities of our time' in his painting. The Green Amsterdammer however, the wall called an outright provocation. Appel had not made a permanent work of art, but had used the 'shock method': 'Of course, such colossal temporalities cannot be measured with an eternity meter; a certain magnification or simplification is inevitable here. These are not murals, but monstrously enlarged posters, eye-catchers, screams on the wall. The objection to Appel is that he tries to shout everything, including himself and his artistry '.

It could be worse. "Five hundred meters of paint in a few weeks!" Leeuwarder Courant annoyed. 'The American painter Pollock can do it even faster. It kicks a bus upside down and the spots that arise then are paid five times as well as Appel's overweight primitivism. The snobs do dock. They bid against each other. Apple is becoming more coarse and uncooked every day. The head has been driven by the gentlemen of international exhibitions and by the rich in Italy, who admire his "vitality", his ability to drink and eat a lot. Free of course '. Ed van der Elsken saw it differently. He captured Karel Appel in a magnificent series of photos. The artist posed like a rock star Wall of the Energy in the making - indifferent, self-assured, vain too. Here and there he gave instructions to assistants, then again he rolled out design drawings, showed a child his brushes, or simply pierced his gaze into the photographer's lens. Van der Elsken managed to portray Appel as The Free People had already typed him in 1950: as the most exotic and surrealistic figure in the Dutch art world. It is precisely this reputation that would later be definitively established in Jan Vrijman's legendary film, The world of Karel Appel (1962).

FLORIADE 1960: MOON LANDSCAPE

In 1960, Appel received his third and final assignment from Jaap Bakema: a work for the Floriade, again a city event, this time focusing on fruit and vegetable cultivation, greenhouse farming and (Japanese) flower arranging art. The hustle and bustle of the Floriade was undoubtedly the construction of the Euromast, an 120 meter-high watchtower that would become the icon of Rotterdam. Visual art was also abundantly present. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen had set up a beautiful sculpture garden, where numerous masters were shown: Zadkine, Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Manzu, Giacometti and Marini, for example, but also Henry Moore, Alexander Calder and Barbara Hepworth. One of the showpieces was l'Homme qui marche (1907) by Auguste Rodin, an image that would be purchased by the city council after the exhibition.

For the 'Universe and Earth' exhibition, Appel made a work whose lifespan should not exceed that of the manifestation. It became a forty meter long wall painting, or better, a multimedia relief, because Appel had gone wild with everything he got in his hands. He created a huge lunar landscape. The Reformed Family Sheet called the scene frightening, but The Free People enjoyed as before. The reporter labeled the exhibition space as the 'Apple Cave'. Again, the newspaper regretted the demise of the work after the Floriade had closed its gates. 'The lunar landscape now gives the impression of a bunker being demolished. Iron wire, cardboard, pieces of plaster on grids, broken boards, smeared colors on the white plaster, nails, a roof that appears to have collapsed, that is the image of faded beauty. It was a work of art. Now it's over '.

TECHNIKON: BURLESK GLASS-IN-BETON

Even without Bakema, Appel remained focused on Rotterdam. He designed a glass-in-concrete relief for the entrance to the Hofplein theater for the Maaskant, Van Dommelen, Kroos and Senf architectural firm. The theater was part of a huge school complex, the so-called Technikon, that would house eight technical educational institutions. "Everything has to be done in Rotterdam," said cabaret artist Paul van Vliet at the opening of the building. 'If they build a vestzak theater here, it must immediately be a mammoth vestzak theater. And if they come here too late, then they will be well here too. " The construction of the superstructure had already started in 1961. There was a budget for an image-defining work of art as part of the percentage scheme. A two-dimensional work was chosen above the entrance to the theater, situated on the inner square of the complex. Appel was polled for the company in 1963. Appel wanted a wall of stained glass, but the execution turned out to be technically risky and hardly feasible financially. He then presented a model: the colored glass would now be placed in a beautifully designed concrete skeleton. Again there were financial problems. Fortunately, the municipal Urban Embellishment Commission offered a solution. Since 1960, the Commission has advised the city council on the purchase of prestigious works of art. Appel found an admirer in committee member and art collector Piet Sanders. Sanders had already financially supported the poverty-stricken young artist in the 1930 years (his first purchase in 1937 was a painting by Karel Appel). The Urban Embellishment Commission proved willing to make up for the shortage, so that the entrance relief at the Hofplein theater could be realized. The concrete skeleton was cast on site and placed in the facade with a crane. The colored glass plates were then applied. Again there was a mammoth job: the work was almost 25 meters long and six meters high.

The glass relief made an organic-abstract impression, somewhat similar to the wall painting by E55. "Four or five colossal, rudimentary human or animal figures emerge, sometimes only suggested by large round eyes," wrote art historian Rogier Schumacher. "Together, the figures that tumble together form a burlesque party procession, which seems to continue to the left and right outside the frames". Queen Juliana performed the unveiling in 1970. "Which button should I press?" The queen asked Appel. "I wouldn't know with God," said the artist, staring at the different buttons. "I always press the wrong button. Let's gamble '. Juliana chose a random button after which the curtain was automatically pushed aside. In this theatrical setting, the artwork revealed itself to the assembled audience. The critic of the New Rotterdam Newspaper was impressed and spoke of a top performance. 'The expressionistic symbolism of eager bird heads, aggressively biologizing eyes and the organically grown composition of the main lines - it is surprisingly impressive. He has conceived the assignment as a new creative adventure, as an artistic matter of honor and as the opportunity to strive for a top piece in his oeuvre. That has become unconditional '.

NEH: CITY PEOPLE

In the meantime, Appel had also become involved in the construction of a new building for the Netherlands Economic College (NEH), under the auspices of architect Cornelis Elffers. Within the scope of the percentage scheme, artists were involved in the company, including the Rotterdam specialist Ger van Iersel (an ecumenically inspired artist), the designer-artist Dick Elffers (a brother of the architect), the poet-painter Lucebert and Karel Appel . Piet Sanders again had an important share in the choice. Sanders was not only associated with the NEH as a professor, he was also part of the art committee in the context of the new building. Appel made a design for the awning above the former entrance to the high-rise. It had to become a ceramic tile tableau. And again it turned out to be a costly undertaking, certainly after Appel had stipulated that he would maintain contact with the manufacturer of the tiles, De Porceleyne Fles in Delft. All invoices went through Paris, where Appel had his home and studio. In the end, the costs of the tableau would not be borne by the percentage scheme, because a jubilating Rotterdam company extended a helping hand.

In 1965, NV Flour mills of Dutch Bakery (Meneba) existed for fifty years. To be less dependent on private manufacturers, more than 5000 Dutch bakers had taken a share in a cooperative mutual flour mill in 1915. The plant on the Maashaven was involved in 1919. The company proved to be successful and the management regularly paid 'a tax-free extra dividend in shares' to the members. This is also the case in 1965. "The Meneba is a healthy company," said Tjerk Schmidt, the company's chief executive officer. "Our company is just as solid as the steel and concrete colossus that has been planted here on the banks of the Maas." Because now the 50 anniversary was also celebrated, the Meneba management decided to offer the city of Rotterdam two works of art. The NEH was offered 100.000 guilders, so that Karel Appel could realize his 'facade decoration'. That choice for the Economics College was not a coincidence, explained Schmidt, because Meneba had demonstrated that she "had conquered a place in the Dutch economy." 50.000 was also donated to the Daniël den Hoed Foundation, "a clinic for the treatment and care of patients suffering from rheumatic diseases." With that money a bronze sculpture by the Rotterdam artist Gust Romijn was paid for: Clouds it was called the work. It had to become a 'Life Image', the artist told a reporter of The Free People: "One must be able to walk under it and, as far as I am concerned, also climb". With both works of art, the Meneba confirmed its corporate philosophy, namely that, in addition to economic and humanitarian motives, it was also known.

City people (1966), as the ceramic tableau by Appel is entitled, consists of a series of colorful drawings (originally set in chalk and gouache) against a background of white baked tiles. At first glance, the work lacks the conceptual unity that characterizes his earlier monumental works in Rotterdam. The judgment of critics (and architect Cornelis Elffers) was therefore devastating. A 'failure' was called the facade gallery. The drawings on the white tiles would give the impression of a swimming pool and would not suit a university of size. Indeed, City people consists of a series of separate 'paintings' - it is a portrait gallery of students, young city dwellers, for whom the future is still open. The white tiles create an alienating, but also virgin, unspoilt atmosphere. Everything is still possible; promises have not yet been delivered. The series of portraits is an ode to youth, freedom and the future, to life force. From that point of view, the frieze does not make a failed impression at all, but the series must be interpreted as original, fresh and vital.

EUROPOINT

While the NEH was put into use in 1969 and dozens of professors and academic staff visited daily City people entering the university, the newspapers reported that Appel was going to build 'a huge sculpture' in Rotterdam. The Rotterdam Trading Company Overbeek announced that it would build three skyscrapers on Marconiplein: the project was called 'Europoint'. A renowned architectural firm, based in Chicago, would be responsible for the design of the office building. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was the largest American architectural firm at the time. Overbeek's office was already on Marconiplein. This 'Overbeek House' was now christened Europoint I. In addition, three new towers would rise: Europoint II, III and IV. Such a megalomaniac venture naturally also deserved a megalomaniac work of art. "After completion, Karel Appel will start his design for his sculpture," reported Het Parool. Nobody knew what that sculpture should look like, but it would in any case be 'a work of art of very large dimensions', 'a plastic of forty meters high, consisting of ship's plates'.

During the construction of Europint II and III, however, the market collapsed and the specter of vacancy emerged. In 1976, the municipality of Rotterdam decided to purchase two towers for 131 million guilders. The City Development and Municipal Works services had to be housed here. The third tower was built for OGEM, the colonial energy company that had developed into a construction company. Due to a crisis in the real estate market and the substantial investment that the municipality had to make, Apple's proposal for a giant metal sculpture was referred to the waste bin. It is unknown whether Appel challenged that decision. Anyway, the municipality of Rotterdam felt compelled to talk to the artist again. Then a work was purchased: a tapestry (300 x 300 centimeter). The rug was made in 1972 and was placed three years later in the entrance hall of the municipal works department, just opposite the office of the city architect.

Appel has long worked with various techniques and in various disciplines. Also with textile since the 1950 years. He designed fabrics for clothing studios, made scarves or had compositions on paper worked out in textiles (still in 2001, the Stadsschouwburg in Tilburg received a huge tapestry made from a gouache from 1956). In Rotterdam, he had already made a series of 'hand-woven rugs' in 1961 for the new construction of Life Insurance Company Utrecht on Coolsingel. His tapestry for Europoint is one of the highlights from the Rotterdam city collection and unmistakably Karel Appel: multicolored, stylized forms in which, very rudimentary, some faces are recognizable, combined into an organic composition. In 2015 the canvas was cleaned and restored, after which it moved to the new building of the municipality in De Rotterdam, a design by Rem Koolhaas on the left bank of the Maas. The work now hangs on the 22th floor in a study room, right next to the restaurant.

ROTTERDAM

"Is someone going to ask me some questions?", An irritated Karel Appel asked of his Rotterdam audience in 1974. Nothing. "The students look at the artist in action and listen to his monologue," wrote his biographer Cathérine van Houts. They kept 'silent', impressed as they were by 'this living legend'. Legend or not, Appel was disappointed. The students did not realize that they were witnessing a historical event: never before had the artist "abandoned his fight to the public in public." After he had given his painting as a gift to the academy (and received a 'Dutch cheese' in return) another tour of the studios at the academy followed. The artist commented that the artist was 'not exactly enthusiastic' about the level of the students The Free People on. "Often technically not unclear, but completely numb," was his comment. They shouldn't have kept their mouth shut.

Karel Appel taught the Netherlands what modern art is, wrote Dick van Teylingen. He also taught Rotterdammers what modern art is. Or better, he learned what freedom is. Visitors to Ahoy 1950 and E55 did not know what they were seeing. Appel was the champion of free expression, of spontaneity, vitality, intuition. He started out as a painter, but also turned out to be a deserving creator of images and reliefs. His glass relief for the Hofplein theater and City people above the entrance of the main building of the current Erasmus University have acquired a special status in the Rotterdam sculpture collection.


Published in: Gerard Frishert, Ceramic tile tableau City people from Karel Appel. A true monumental work of art, connected to an equally worthy monument (Rotterdam: EUR / Frishert CEA Creations, 2019), 28-33

Related artwork

City people (1966) Karel Appel
Untitled (1970) Karel Appel