Karel Appel

Questioning Children


In Tate Liverpool

Karel Appel 1921–2006
Original title
Vragende kinderen
Gouache on wood
Object: 873 × 598 × 158 mm
frame: 1084 × 818 × 220 mm
Presented by the artist 1986

Display caption

Appel prepared the surface of Questioning Children by nailing discarded pieces of wood to an old window shutter. The vibrant colours and roughly-painted figures recall the spontaneity of children’s art. CoBrA artists believed that such unconventional sources could re-invigorate post-war culture. In the same year Appel also used the title Questioning Children for a controversial mural at the Town Hall in Amsterdam, which was condemned as incomprehensible, and covered over with wallpaper. There is a note of tragedy in these works as the Dutch title also means 'begging children' and evokes scenes of poverty that Appel had witnessed in post-war Germany.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Karel Appel born 1921

T04158 Questioning Children 1949

Gouache on pine wood relief 873 x 598 x 158 (34 3/4 x 23 1/2 x 6 1/4)
Inscribed ‘K. Appel. 49' b.r.
Presented by the artist 1986
Exh: Karel Appel Gemälde, Stadtische Kunstgalerie, Bochum, Oct.-Dec. 1965 (5, repr., as ‘Bittende Kinder'); Karel Appel Udstillingne, City Museum, Copenhagen, Dec. 1965, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, June-Aug. 1965 (VI, repr., as ‘Vragende Kinderen',); Malninger 1947-1965 Karel Appel, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Feb.-March 1966 (5, repr., as ‘Frågande barn'); Appel's Appels, Musée d'Art Contemporain Montréal, Montreal, April-May 1972, Rothmans Art Gallery, Stratford, Ontario, June-Sept. 1972, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, Oct.-Nov. 1972, Edmonton Art Gallery, Nov.-Dec. 1972, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Dec. 1972-Jan. 1973, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Feb. 1973, Dalhousie University Art Gallery, Halifax, March-April 1973, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, April-May 1973, Public Library and Art Museum, London, Ontario, June-July 1973, New York Cultural Center, July-Sept. 1973 (5, repr. in col.); Karel Appel: Exposicián del Gran Artista Holandés - Pintor de Insolita Expresiridad, Museo de Arte Moderna, Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico, Oct.-Dec. 1977, Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogot , Columbia, May 1978 (6 as ‘Niños Interrogantes II'); Westkunst, Museen der Stadt, Cologne, May-Aug. 1981 (361, repr. p.394); 1948 Cobra Cobra Cobra Cobra 1951, Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, Dec. 1982-Feb. 1983, Maison de la culture, Chalon-sur-Sa ne, March-April 1983, Musée des beaux-arts, Rennes, April-June 1983 (19, repr. p.109, as ‘Enfants interrogeants')
Lit: Hugo Claus, Karel Appel Painter, Amsterdam 1964, pp.67-9, repr. p.46 (detail with artist), p.52 (in studio) and p.68; Peter Berger, ‘Karel Appel' in Claude Esteban and Michel Delorme (eds.), Ecrits sur Karel Appel, Paris 1982, pp.305-8 repr.; Simon Vinkenoog, ‘L'Histoire de Karel Appel' in ibid., pp.93-5; Pierre Restany, Street Art de Karel Appel, Paris 1982, p.24, repr. on front cover (detail, col.); Rasaad Jamie, ‘Appel Now', Artscribe, no.45, Feb.-April 1984, p.43; Eleanor Flomenhaft, The Roots and Development of Cobra Art, New York 1985, pp.76-81, repr. p.76; Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.78 repr. (col.). Also repr: Appel, Constant, Corneille, exh. cat., Birch's Kunsthandel, Copenhagen 1949, p.8 as ‘L'Innocence accuse'; Reflex, no.2, 1949; Karel Appel, exh. cat., Galerie Rive Droit, Paris 1956, p.9 as ‘Vragende Kinderen'; Gunnar Jespersen, Cobra, 1974, p.12; Willemijn Stokvis, Cobra, Amsterdam 1974, pl.121; Karel Appel: Paintings 1980-85, exh. cat., Arnolfini, Bristol 1986, p.10

Unless otherwise stated quotations by the artist are from a letter dated 15 April 1988, in answer to questions from the compiler. This entry has been approved by the artist.

Karel Appel was one of the key figures in the CoBrA movement which united the turbulent passions of a number of young Dutch, Danish and Belgian artists in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Appel was born and brought up in Amsterdam and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts from 1942-44. A close friend and fellow student was the artist Corneille. Appel's conversion from competent student work to the unrestrained vigour of his CoBrA creations was prompted both by the inspiring alternatives to tradition displayed in the exhibitions of modern European masters, presented at the Stedelijk Museum by Willem Sandberg, (Picasso, Matisse, Bazaine, Estève and Lapique in 1946; Le Corbusier, Calder, Léger, Kandinsky and Chagall in 1947) and by his meeting with the artist Constant and, through him, Asger Jorn, who played a leading role in galvanising the energies of the young artists who made up CoBrA. The artist recalled:

Corneille and I were friends throughout the war and then I met Constant. We were all looking for the real new image, fresh and new like a rebirth. We had to learn what came before - the Renaissance, Chinese art, the French art. The luminous feeling captured in Rembrandt's paintings touch the secret of life. Although Van Gogh's canvases are strong with joyous colour, you experience in them the tragedy of life. Picasso was a major inspiration for me, also Matisse for colour, and from the Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters, I was influenced to utilize found objects.
You have to learn it all: then forget it and start again like a child. This is the inner evolution. I speak about it all the time; it is the hardest thing for the artist (Flomenhaft 1985, p.76).

The presumed urgency, immediacy and natural, innocent aggression of the child's imagination was of crucial importance to CoBrA artists as a means of liberating artistic creativity from the restraints of pre-war aesthetic modes. Issue 4 of the CoBrA journal, which was published in 1949 and edited by the ‘Dutch Experimental Group', devoted much space to an exhibition of children's art entitled ‘Kunst en Kind', which was shown at the Stedelijk Museum during winter 1948-49, and juxtaposed images by children and untrained, amateur painters with works by CoBrA artists including Appel. Reflex, no.1 had been published in Amsterdam as the organ of the Dutch Experimental Group in September 1948 and contained a manifesto by Constant, who acted as spokesman for the Dutch artists, which linked the ‘natural... search for expression' of folk art with the child who ‘knows no other law than the spontaneous feeling for life and has no other need than to express this'. These ideas were strongly felt by Appel and evident in his work as early as summer 1946 for already in that year, in a review of the exhibition ‘Five Generations of Young Artists' organised by the Stedelijk Museum, the critic Maud van Lood had noted the remarkable affinity of Appel's work with ‘the primitive phase of first utterances by children' (Flomenhaft 1985, p.27)

'Questioning Children' is one of three painted wood reliefs of the same title and also shares a title with the controversial mural that Appel was commissioned to paint in the Amsterdam City hall canteen in 1949 (see below). Of the additional wood reliefs one, dated 1948, is in the collection of the Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (850 x 570, 33 1/2 x 22 1/2, repr. Jean-Clarence Lambert, Cobra, 1983, p.81 in col.) while the other, dated 1949, is in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1050 x 670, 41 1/2 x 26 1/3, repr. Paris exh. cat. 1983, p.109). All three wood reliefs are of similar dimensions and employ the same ‘found' materials. They are crude and robust structures of rough planks with a relief built up from variously shaped pieces of old and dented wood, vigorously nailed or stuck to the planks. For the background of T04158 Appel used an old, possibly seventeenth century shutter from Smirna, the house in Oude Zyds Voorburgwal where he had his studio and where the work was fabricated and painted. The relief elements fixed to the shutter were ‘left-overs' from a coal stove and the artist purchased them from ‘Stoof Steeg' (Stove Alley) close to the house Smirna. The placing of the relief elements is not arbitrary and in all three the disposition of the figures and their essential physical characters are determined by the shape and combination of the collaged wood pieces. The figures and ground are brightly coloured in gouache and arms, legs, ears and decorative borders are added to the base panels where the simple geometry of the wood pieces cannot contain them. Characteristic of all three is the direct frontal presentation of the figures with outstretched arms and large, round eyes. According to the artist the three works were made in the ‘same period and the same mood'. In T04158 the rough square format given to the heads and the prominent slashes of colour have been linked by Eleanor Flomenhaft to the primitive images illustrated in CoBrA 1 (pp.1 and 12-13). She also suggests that the schematic decorative marks around the face in the top left hand corner may be connected with the bold rendering of the shutters in a painting by a child exhibiting in ‘Kunst en Kind' whose work was reproduced in CoBrA 4 (p.18). In the same painting a woman is shown beside a tree. Her wide face with firmly marked features and her slightly raised, stick-like arms provide a revealing example of the child art by which Appel may have been inspired. He later spoke of this influence:

When I started, I used to look at children's drawings. They gave me the impetus I needed to free myself from the things I'd learnt during my classical education. I could then begin with a blank page like a child - or let's say, like a ‘child adult'. I started again from scratch thanks to these children's drawings which were like a gust of fresh air (Karel Appel interviewed by André Verdet, Arnolfini Catalogue 1986, p.19).

In the same interview Appel spoke of the particular qualities of children that he found so refreshing:

The child in man is all that's strongest, most receptive, most open and unpredictable. ‘Adult' means ‘controlled'. A child lives spontaneously; he's not aware of his talent; he looks at everything as though he were seeing it for the first time (ibid., p.18).

As an assemblage of found objects ‘Questioning Children' suggests that the ‘Merz' collages of Kurt Schwitters may have been an influence. However the artist has stated that he was not fully aware of Schwitters's constructions and reliefs until some time later when his work was shown at the Stedelijk Museum. The reliefs were not Appel's first exploration of the sculptural potential of found objects and he recalls that he had ‘already made "objets trouvés" of things I found in the streets, for example loose pieces of Dutch bicycles, electric wires of old vacuum cleaners etc'. Other CoBrA artists were also exploring the imaginative potential of found objects and Appel may have found links between his work and the bric à brac constructions of Henry Heerup, one of the Danish CoBrA artists who wrote that ‘children have always made sculptures from rubbish' (quoted, without date, in Lambert 1983, p.63). Appel, together with Constant and Corneille, visited Copenhagen late in 1948 meeting the Danish ‘Høst Group' artists and seeing much of their work, including Heerup's, for the first time. Parallel investigations, though perhaps showing a clearer input of ideas from Surrealist notions of the ‘chance-object', were undertaken by the Belgian CoBrA artists whose objects and assemblages were exhibited at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in August 1949 in the exhibition ‘L'Objet à travers les âges'.

The painted mural which Appel created for the canteen of the Town Hall in Amsterdam shares its title with T04158 (repr. Alfred Frankenstein, Karel Appel, New York 1980, p.31). In April 1948 Appel himself proposed to the City Council that he should execute a mural in the Town Hall canteen. Some ten months later the Council Committee concerned with Mural painting approved the scheme presented in detailed drawings. The painting was completed by March and was dated by the artist 14 March 1949. The committee for Mural painting accepted the work unanimously but a second Council committee, responsible for the canteen itself, complained to the Mayor that the work was incomprehensible. The Press response to the controversy was generally harsh and condemnatory towards the work and only a few voices called for acceptance and understanding. In December the Mayor and Councillors decided to have the mural covered with wallpaper. The controversy was to continue during the following months with an articulate counterattack launched by friends, CoBrA colleagues and admirers of the mural. Ten years later the climate of opinion had changed and the mural was uncovered and restored by the artist.

The events of 1949 suggest how bold and daring the images in the Town Hall mural must have seemed. The artist cannot recall whether T04158 preceded or followed the mural and early photographs of the work made precise dating very difficult. A photograph of ‘Questioning Children' is reproduced in the small catalogue produced for an exhibition entitled ‘Appel, Constant, Corneille' at Birch's Kunsthandel, Copenhagen 21 May - 2 June 1949, although according to the artist he did not take part in the exhibition. The reproduction shows the work in what appears to be an early, unfinished state. Apart from several small changes in detail, which could be explained by the poor technical quality of the image or the lighting conditions under which the photograph was taken, Appel's signature and the date are notably absent from the right hand panel of the work. The work was reproduced again some seven years later in a catalogue to an exhibition of his work at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris in October 1956 and at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in November although the artist cannot recall taking part in the exhibition. The reproduction was incorrectly dated and in it the work appears, as in the Copenhagen catalogue, unsigned and undated by the artist. Here the differences between the present day appearance of the work and the reproduced image are even more numerous. However the extremely poor quality of the reproduction indicates that some clumsy retouching work may have been done to the photographic image in order to enhance the clarity of the reproduction. Two further early photographs of ‘Questioning Children' are of particular interest. One (Claus 1962, p.52) shows the relief hanging on a wall in Appel's studio. Hanging on its right is the relief of the same title now in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The photograph is dated 1949. Unfortunately T04158 is in deep shadow and it is not possible to see any precise details. The other photograph presents a partial view of the work and includes the young Appel brandishing an axe at the relief on the easel. The photograph is reproduced in Claus 1962, p.46. The work is captioned 1947 which is clearly incorrect. However from Appel's youthful appearance and the presence of the easel one must assume that the photograph was taken well before the mid 1950s and furthermore in this version, with the artist, the work reveals its signature and date. This suggests that the 1956 reproduction of the work in the Galerie Rive Droite catalogue records an early state and is perhaps a retouched version of the 1949 Copenhagen exhibition catalogue image. Appel was engaged with the theme of ‘Questioning Children' for at least a year and in addition to the mural and reliefs a considerable body of work bears the same or a related title. ‘Enfants interrogeant' 1949 (repr. Sotheby's sale catalogue, ‘Post War and Contemporary Art', June 30 1988, lot no.604, in col.) is a mixed media collage with gouache on card and is looser in handling than the wood reliefs although a certain geometry is enforced by the straight edges of the disparate collaged elements which Appel uses to construct his composition. The crayon drawing, ‘Enfants interrogateurs no.2' 1949 (repr. Esteban and Delorme 1982, p.307), employs the looser, more curvilinear forms that distinguish the mural. The contrast indicates how thoroughly Appel exploited the particular qualities of the medium at his disposal. One of the common features of all these works is the way in which each figure is clearly blocked in; however simplified and schematic, the figures remain separate elements in the composition, distinct from the background. Similarly a consistent prominence is given to obviously human and potentially expressive features such as eyes, mouths, hands and legs. On the relationship between the mural and T04158 the artist simply states ‘They were both made at the same period. Relation: the same esprit and motives'. In presenting the mural to journalists and press photographers Appel recalled that, on a train journey from Germany to Denmark, he had seen ‘German children begging the whole length of the train. At the time I didn't really take note. But the result is this.' (Vinkenoog 1982, p.94). The artist remembers that this journey took place in 1946 and that the scene described was at Hamburg railway station where the train stopped for several hours. In addition the meaning of the Dutch title ‘Vragende kinderen' loses much in translation to French and English. In Dutch the work ‘Vragende' carries a dual meaning - questioning and begging. These factors contribute to a fuller understanding of the historical meaning of Appel's ‘Questioning Children', revealing a side to the work which is more complex than the celebratory image of innocent creativity that the artist's later remarks, quoted above, suggest. This duality is described by Peter Berger as a ‘double character' combining an image of ‘simplicity’, and air of festivity...joyous and pure colour' with ‘in their eyes... a fear which goes beyond mere protest against the reality of a world created by adults. It is a fear of existence itself. These are images which belong to a shattered world' (Berger 1982, p.305).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.86-9

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