Karel Appel, Bosch and Delacroix

Not natural bedfellows, but they happen to be the subject of three exhibitions I have visited over the past few days.

The Appel show is large and highly revealing for an English visitor. I don’t imagine there is much work by him on display in the UK and I only really know his work through illustrations (such as the peculiar portrait of Herbert Read, which is on the cover of a book I think). As a whole, this retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag (which resembles a converted municipal building somehow, with coloured encaustic tiles everywhere and odd corridors) was excellent. His work was full of variety and a number of pictures have stuck in my mind despite the overlay of the other two artists coming afterwards. I fear he knocks aside our very own COBRA member, William Gear, whose work I do like but which seems infinitely dreary and repetitive compared with this. Gear rather went down in my estimation after I saw him en masse at Eastbourne (in the same way, I have never been able to look at Camille Pissarro’s work in the same way after seeing multiple almost identical examples in a retrospective many years ago). So, if you are going to the Netherlands to see the Bosch, as advised by the reviews in many of the English papers, go to Den Haag, stay at the lovely Hotel des Indes, glance at the Escher museum, visit the wonderful Mauritshuis and see Appel. Tramline 17 gets you there from the centre. There are also many works by Mondrian to see.

A proper train will then drag you through the grey Dutch February countryside to Den Bosch, changing easily at Utrecht; a journey which takes just over an hour. On arrival, one finds the little, and I suspect otherwise rarely-visited by tourists, town of Den Bosch en fete. They are very excited about their boy and his big show, and they are right to be proud. There is a nice walk through the town to the Noord Brabants Museum, where the show is being held, and on the way Bosch things are everywhere to be seen by way of advertisement and encouragement. We had bought tickets online and everything worked smoothly.

What a great treat it is. All those pictures one feels as if one has grown up with. I had seen the batch in the Prado, but seeing picture after picture together is breathtaking. Completely new to me were the drawings. Definitely worth a visit, especially if combined with something else in the gloriously rich culture of the Netherlands, where everywhere appears to be readily accessible by train. (The lover of things German could always go to Huis Doorn to see where the last Kaiser spent his last years after leaving Germany at the end of the First World War. He was still there when the German army arrived to occupy the Netherlands in 1940, but he seems to have overestimated their enthusiasm to restore him to his throne.)

The Delacroix show at the National Gallery is very hard to get excited about. One feels the curators have enjoyed themselves discovering connections between him and later artists, thereby padding out the works on display by Delacroix with works by others. I went round as part of a guided tour of about 30 people and I would guess, as non-art historians, every one of them was utterly bewildered as to the point of the show and the reality of the connections being claimed. The thesis was far too academic and obscure for a big show of general appeal and one rather longed to emerge from the dark little exhibition rooms in the grim basement of the Sainsbury Wing and get back to the real glories of the National Gallery’s great collection upstairs. I wonder if the newish Director inherited this show from the previous Director? One just needed to be shown why Delacroix himself was so important, without getting onto whether Renoir was influenced by him. I suggest Delacroix on his own needs selling to normal English art-loving visitors before one starts to complicate the message.