Hip, Hip, Hoorah! Karel Appel vs. Basement Jaxx
My stopover in London at the end of my fall break was barely 12 hours long. Even though my time there was negligible I woke up early so I could cross the Millennium Bridge to see what was new at one of my favorite museums in the world- the Tate Modern.
The first time I went to the Tate was back with a school program in August 2003. All of the installations that they displayed back then blew my mind. The sheer size of some of them overwhelmed me and I still hold my memories of my first trip to the Tate very dearly. While the exterior of the large converted power plant remained the same as before the art inside was quite new to me.
My favorite new addition to the Tate was a series of songs written by musicians inspired by art in the museum. Several bands and songwriters were brought into the museum and were told to find the piece that spoke to them the most and then compose a piece about it. This marriage of modern art and music opened up so many more emotional connections to art for me because my ears were involved in the whole experience of the museum too.
The one that stood out the most to me was a painting called Hip, Hip, Hoorah! by the Dutch painter Karel Appel. As I wandered (and wondered) about the surrealism wing my eye was caught by a flurry of florescent colors. Shades of green, red, orange, blue and yellow popped brightly into my vision.
There, set against a pitch-black background, was a group of birds with plumage in rainbow shades. The brush strokes were rough and heavily textured. The details were smudged and smeared into oblivion. Their large eyes were black, white and blue. One creature had long blue puppy-dog ears and a white hand for a tail. Another bird had one large eye-ball resting on top of its head with long white eyelashes.
Each creature looked as if they were dancing, flying, or about to take off. The bird in the center looked as if it was waving its wings, which looked more like hands, in the air in glee. The angles the animals created with their bodies were crooked and awkward as if a child had sketched them.
Although I dislike it when people devalue modern art by saying things like, “Oh, I could have done that myself!” this piece was reminiscent of a child’s drawing of animals with their limbs pointing every which way and eyes and hands positioned in places where they naturally do not grow.
As I read the plaque next to the frame I was shocked to realize that this was painted in 1949. My gut feeling was that it was created in the last decade. The colors and the shapes seemed too modern to be done more than half a century ago. I haven’t studied much contemporary art, but I was still surprised that this painting could have been created in the years immediately after World War II. It struck me as an anachronism.
An electronic musical group called Basement Jaxx picked Hip, Hip, Hoorah! to write their song about. I picked up the large over-the-ear headphones that rested next to the painting and placed them about my head as I stood back to take in the painting.
The song started off with a strong, throbbing bass beat accompanied by a sitar-like instrument that gave the whole track an South Asian vibe while a deep bass voice shouted “Hip, Hip, Hooray!” in the background. In addition to the sitar riffs there was a heavy electronic synthesizer line weaving throughout the song. The sitar melody eventually gave way to a more ethereal organ drone followed by a quiet piano section. While the energy of the beginning forced me to focus on the brightly colored creatures, the droning organ and piano section allowed me to focus on the black background (which reminded me of the night sky and outer space) and explore the opposite of the bright animals and loud syncopated rhythms played earlier.
As I listened a young girl picked up the other set of headphones and joined in on the experience. As the song picked up beat she started dancing maniacally about the museum floor with her head bopping along to the rhythm in a sort of celebratory dance.
She was oblivious to the grey-skied world around her as she smiled and laughed along to the music. Her limbs flailed everywhere with the sort of freedom that young children have because they have yet to learn how to control the movement of their bodies. Her dance mirrored what I could imagine the birds’ flight would be like if the painting were to come alive. She was caught up in that florescent world that those happy birds were painted in. She embodied the feeling of the phrase Hip, Hip, Hoorah! to me.
Upon further research on the Tate’s website I discovered that Karel Appel was one of the leading members of the European avant-garde movement, COBRA, which was named after the initials of the members’ home cities of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The group was active from 1949 to 1952.
The painting was titled Hip, Hip, Hoorah! to celebrate the freedom that COBRA achieved by breaking from the norm with their characteristic bright colors and child-like images. Each of the figures in Appel’s painting is a hybrid of human and animal or bird-like features. Appel saw them as “people of the night” which explains the black background in which he placed them.
In the information about the musical interpretation of Appel’s painting on the Tate’s website Basement Jaxx said, “The approach of the music was to have a hybrid sound or melodic thread for each creature, with a central theme that is ‘the world in which they exist’.” I was able to hear a bit of this idea as the riffs and melodies changed and the instruments shifted from sitar to organ and then to piano.
Appel’s painting style is also characterized by thick lines and swirling forms “with grotesque imagery of animals, monsters and the human figure,” according to the Tate’s website. Appel was also influenced by the spirit of children’s drawings which is one of the first things that struck me about his style.
Appel once said that “the child in man is all that’s strongest, most receptive, most open and unpredictable.” Reading this I remembered the girl who danced wildly beside me as she listened to the Basement Jaxx song while absorbing Appel’s painting. I believe that each artist was wholly successful in achieving their goals of connecting with that child-like spirit when they created their works of art.
Listen to the song here at the Tate Modern Website.