Frank Kupka
Biography, Abstract Paintings of Czech Artist.
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Planes by Colors (Large Nude) (1909)
Guggenheim Museum, NY. One of the
greatest 20th century paintings by a
Czech artist.

Frank (Frantisek) Kupka (1871-1957)

Contents

Biography
Early Life
Paris
Experimentation
Abstract Painting
Abstraction-Creation Group
Reputation
Collections



Planes by Colours (1910-11)
National Museum of Modern Art, Paris.

COLOURS USED IN PAINTING
For an idea of the pigments
used by Frantisek Kupka in his
non-objective or abstract art, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

Biography

The Czech painter and pioneer of abstract art Frantisek Kupka trained at the fine arts academies of Prague and Vienna before arriving in Paris about 1896. After working as a book illustrator, he explored a number of styles including Symbolism and Fauvism. His search for an optical parallel to music led him to explore abstraction. He is historically important for his highly personal expressionism - notably the abstract paintings he created about 1910, whose lyrical effects emancipate colour from any descriptive role. These works were among the first abstract pictures produced in Paris, and reportedly inspired Robert Delaunay and his work on Orphism. A member of the Ecole de Paris, he was also noted for his theoretical treatise La Creation dans les Arts Plastiques (Creativity in the Visual Arts) (1914). He was a founding member of the Abstraction-Creation group, an association of abstract artists formed in Paris in 1931. Now seen as one of the most original abstract painters - indeed one of the most innovative of all 20th century painters - his style of concrete art, unfortunately, did not begin to be properly understood until a retrospective of his career was staged at the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris in 1958 a year after his death. For more about Kupka's contribution to expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).


The Yellow Scale (1907)
Self-Portrait
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

 

Early Life

The oldest of several children, Kupka was apprenticed to a saddler in Dobruska where his father was a secretary in the town hall. A highly sensitive young man, he was early influenced by his employer who initiated him into spiritualism. But Kupka, who had no desire to become a saddler, left. A journey across eastern Bohemia impressed him with the richly Baroque architecture as well as the Baroque art of the region, in particular the sculptures of Mathias Braun. On his return he attended the Jaromer technical college where the painter Studnicka introduced him to the work of Josef Manes and prepared him for entry to the Prague Academy of Fine Art.

During his time in Prague from 1887 to 1891 Kupka discovered contemporary European painting, and continued to be fascinated by spiritualism. He then moved to Vienna where he followed courses at the Akademie. From this period date various symbolist portraits (The Last Dream of the Dying Heine, Prague Museum), painted in the academic art style of the era. In 1894 he spent a short time in London and rather longer in Scandinavia. In 1895 he arrived in Paris where he remained until his death.

Paris

To earn a living in Paris, Kupka gave lessons in drawing to milliners and supplied satirical drawings to the newspapers. The cycles he executed in 1902 for L'Assiette au Beurre (Money, Peace) were violent diatribes against the injustice and cruelty of man. Once he had achieved a certain measure of success he abandoned newspaper caricatures for book illustration. Between 1904 and 1906 he illustrated Elisee Reclus's L'Homme et la terre; between 1905 and 1909 The Song of Songs, Leconte de Lisle's Les Brinnyes, Aristophanes's Lysistrata and Aeschylus's Prometheus, in which (particularly in the first two works) the influence of his compatriot, the poster artist Alphonse Mucha may be discerned. Meanwhile, Kupka was still involved with oil painting and, during his early phase in Paris, experimented with Impressionism (The Bibliophile, 1896-8, Prague Museum).

Experimentation

Soon, under the influence of Odilon Redon, he began executing Symbolist canvases in which line predominated, and in which he occasionally sacrificed plastic expression to concept (Defiance, or The Black Idol, 1903, Prague Museum). After settling in Puteaux, where he was a neighbour of Jacques Villon, he participated in the Section d'Or group. In 1905 he turned back towards Impressionism before moving closer to the Fauves. Between 1907 and 1910 he explored figurative Expressionism, painting a number of street scenes and prostitutes (The Archaic, 1910, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris), before his expressionism took a more abstract route.

Abstract Painting

Influenced by Reynaud's praxinoscope and by Marey's chronophotography, he attempted, long before Marcel Duchamp and the Italian exponents of Futurism, to translate movement and light. In 1909 he painted the picture that marked a turning-point in his art: the Piano Keyboard - the Lake (Prague Museum). For this work he divided his canvas into a series of narrow parallel bands which were those 'planes of colour' which formed the basis for his abstract canvases, painted from 1910 onwards but not exhibited until the 1912 Autumn Salon (Madame Kupka among Vertical Lines, 1910-11, New York, M.O.M.A.; Amorpha, Fugue for Two Colours, Prague Museum; and Vertical Planes, 1912, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris).

The works caused a sensation. The titles, chosen by the artist himself, explain on the one hand the circular motifs, characterized by interrupting elliptical forms and by generally warm colours; and on the other the vertical motifs, defined with geometrical severity, and often cold colours. A mixture of non-objective art and colourism. At the same time Kupka's interest in the natural sciences began to be reflected in such paintings as Cosmic Spring I (1913-19, Prague Museum). Kupka returned to his canvases many times during his career, constantly retouching them, and he did not date them until shortly before his death.

Abstraction-Creation Group

After serving with the forces in France during the First World War, Kupka took up his earlier work once more. In 1931 he became a founder member of the Abstraction-Creation group and thus came into contact with painters working in abstract art movements, including De Stijl and Neo-Plasticism, as well as the Bauhaus Design School. He pared his paintings down, tending towards rigorous stylization, and painted a series of canvases and gouaches inspired by jazz and its syncopated rhythms: Jazz-Hot No 1 and Music (1935,1936; both Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris). After being evacuated to Beaugency during the Second World War he returned once more to Puteaux and retouched old canvases (Three Blues, Three Reds, 1913-57, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and painted compositions with regular surfaces organized into perpendicular planes in a non-illusionist space (Autonomous White, 1951-2, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris).

Reputation

One of the most interesting expressionist painters, Kupka's numerous interests, music in particular, and his prodigious culture made him one of the eminent representatives of that modern spirit lauded by the French poet Apollinaire (1880-1918). Kupka gave the musical inspiration in his work a sometimes complex interpretation (see his Creation in the Plastic Arts, a theoretical essay written in French and published in a Czech translation in Prague in 1923). One of the best artists of all time from central Europe, he ranks alongside Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), Robert and Susan Delaunay and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), as one of the pioneers of abstract art within the expressionist movement - although his art was always that of a 'loner', and was not really recognized until after his death.

Collections

Expressionist paintings by Frantisek Kupka can be seen in a number of the best art museums around the world, notably the Musee National d'Art Moderne, housed in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and the Prague Museum. A room in the Musee National d'Art Moderne is given over to him (the 163 paintings and drawings are largely the result of Madame Kupka's bequest of 1968).

• For more biographies of modern Czech artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about abstraction, see: Homepage.


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