In the years following the end of World War II, there was a widespread use of expressionist visual language among Western European and American painters working in both abstract and figurative modes. Movements such as Art Informel and Art Brut in Paris and Abstract Expressionism in the United States championed the expressive potential of the painterly gesture and placed a premium on creative spontaneity. The group known as CoBrA, which was founded in 1948 by artists based in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, emerged in this context. Rejecting a formalistic approach to art, CoBrA's members allied themselves with unconventional artistic practices and found inspiration in works by insane artists, in folk art, and, above all, in children's art.
Karel Appel, Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys), Corneille (Guillaume Cornelis Beverloo), Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn, and Joseph Noiret were the founding members of CoBrA. Appel extolled the creative importance of instinct and improvisation, and his work boldly demonstrates the key characteristics of CoBrA art. Never becoming entirely abstract, Appel's expressive painterly style was anchored in principally representational subjects—imaginative animals and fantastic figures. Hoping to recapture the impulse and spontaneity of youth, he sought to achieve a childlike freshness and energy in his work by rendering his subjects in a deliberately awkward, naive fashion, with no attempt at modeling or perspectival illusionism.
In 1950 the center of CoBrA activities shifted from the Netherlands to Paris, where Appel and Corneille had relocated. Appel met critic Michel Tapié, a spokesperson for Art Brut, and the artist Jean Dubuffet, whose work Appel greatly admired. Painted after CoBrA disbanded in 1951, Appel's Two Heads (Deux têtes, 1953) reflects, in both subject matter and technique, the dual influence of CoBrA and Art Brut. The vigorous brushstrokes and vibrant hues lend intensity and expressive weight to the disembodied, deformed heads that are vertically stacked, and evocative of totemic images from tribal art. With its thickly painted surface and rough linearity, Two Heads evidences the force of uninhibited expression.