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[EN] František Kupka: A free and lonely pioneer of abstraction

최종 수정일: 2020년 4월 7일

František Kupka: A free and lonely pioneer of abstraction

NaHyun Kate Park

František Kupka (1871-1957) was highly respected by his peers; Max Bill saw him as the initiator of geometric abstraction. But aloof and independent, he has always been sidelined, which had the consequence of placing him away from a certain historiography of modernity. After his début as a symbolist and expressionist, he made a leap towards abstraction in 1912 and produced non-figurative works of astonishing beauty, finesse and poetry, starting with his two famous Amorpha. Nothing stopped Kupka from his quest for a new art that was capable of transforming man and the world. Yet he must wait until the 1930s, and more precisely 1936, for the first institutional recognition in the United States. Kupka was invited by Alfred Barr to participate in the exhibition "Cubism and Abstraction" at the MoMA in New York. The same year, he also exhibited at Jeu de Paume with his compatriot Alfons Mucha. The reception was rather mixed.

It is not until 1975 for a first major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Kunsthaus in Zurich, then 1989 for that of Paris, at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, before the big demonstration that was currently held at the Grand Palais and trying to restore his place to this virtuoso of color. Still, in 2013, he continued to occupy a rather marginal place, in comparison with other abstract artists, in the exhibition "Inventing Abstraction" held at the MoMA.

An independent artist living as a hermit

There are several reasons to explain this relegation to the background of a leading artist. Starting with his personality, profoundly anarchist and libertarian, Kupka was resistant to any logic of group and grouping of artists. The curator of the exhibition currently being held at the Grand Palais, Brigitte Leal, insists: "he was of a solitary and probably depressive temperament, he never really got involved in big groups. He did not like artistic groupings. "

This had the effect of depriving him of making exhibitions that could have given him more visibility to the world. The beginning of the 20th century is marked by "isms" (fauvism, cubism, futurism, etc.), and under these banners, the artists join to participate in their promotions. As early as 1906, Kupka moved to Puteaux with his new wife, Eugénie Straub, and shared the garden of his studio with Jacques Villon, Duchamp's brother. He was also close to members of Puteaux's group (Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, etc.).

However, as Brigitte Leal emphasizes, in the treatise on art that he wrote in the early 1910s, The Creation in the Visual Arts, Kupka completely ignores his relationships and contacts in order to highlight his freedom and independence to which he hold more than anything. The letter he sent to art critic Arthur Roesseler on February 2, 1913, seems to confirm this: "In fact, I live as a hermit, I have a lovely wife and a little girl, the woods and meadows all around, and I can see a lot of things in a small patch of grass. "

During his Viennese years, from 1890 to 1896, he was noticed by the Empress Elisabeth but, rather than settling in the comfort of a life of academic painter, he made the choice of a bohemian life in Paris. In the 1930s, the group Abstraction-Creation offered him the honor to become president of the circle, although very touched by the recognition, he refused.

As soon as he arrived in Paris, Kupka was disgusted by the artists of Montmartre whom he perceived as primarily interested only in success, rather than in art itself. He made series of satirical drawings of different Parisian ducks in order to provide for his needs betray his positioning in the face of the opportunism, the religion and the money he exerts. Fascinated by the libertarian model, Kupka does not tolerate any concession.

Kupka, a refractory in the merchant world

His rejection of all trading systems certainly reinforced his marginality within an art world in which merchants and collectors already traded to play a vital role. Cubists, in particular, had a "marketing" approach: they knew how to sell and were supported by good merchants. The critical literature of the time also insists on the capitalist logic of the commodification of the avant-gardes, a kind of hyper-visibility that prefigures pop art in a way. But Kupka refuses to be part of such a dynamic. While he exhibited in the Salons, he had no personal merchant before the age of 81. His first contract with a gallerist Louis Carré, and it dates from 1951, probably advised by Marcel Duchamp.

In 1924, he exhibited his abstract compositions at the Galerie de la Boétie, at his own expense. In 1926, he also published his Four Histories of White and Black, which included twenty-four woodcuts accompanied by an overt preface. Curator of the very important exhibition that took place at the Musée d'Orsay on "The Origins of Abstraction", Pascal Rousseau explains that Kupka is an anti-materialist.

"He is anarchist at heart and therefore resistant to the commercialization of the work of art [...] he thinks that art must be detached from the commercial circuit. He is an idealist. The work will be transmitted directly to the viewer by the thought of the artist. As he confides in the last chapter of The Creation in the plastic arts, In the future, there will be no intermediary, no commercialization in art, but telepathic communication. In a 1940-1950 broadcast, he still talks about that. "

In 1919, he met the rich Czech industrialist, Jindrich Waldes, who became his friend and patron. In addition, in 1922 he was appointed professor at the Paris School of Fine Arts in Prague. As a result, he no longer needs to make a living selling his painting, so he can maintain his independence from the market.

A foreigner in Paris

His alien status may also partly explain his marginal position. In the critical literature of the time, there is a whole reactionary current that associates modern art with a degeneration that comes from abroad. In 1906, when Kupka presents Soleil d'automne, public criticized this work deemed too German. He is accused of violating the French tradition of clarity and grace. Same thing in 1912, when he presents Amorpha, the reactions are very negative. Kupka is accused of being violent. Kupka is reproached for being a stranger, a métèque. Some even advised to ban shows to foreigners. All the more so, as Brigitte Leal points out, "Overall, the French public is not traditionally inclined towards abstraction, unlike the Dutch and the Germans ... There is a French tradition more figurative and abstract."

The Guillaume Apollinaire case

In addition, there is the positioning of Guillaume Apollinaire who has always been very ambiguous vis-à-vis Kupka. In a conference given October 11, 1912, in the framework of the Golden Section, Apollinaire launches his concept of Orphism from his analysis of a "separation of cubism", Orphism being the way which leads cubism towards abstraction. He takes up his ideas in his Aesthetic Meditations. Cubist painters, published in 1913. But, as noted by Pierre Brullé in the catalog of the exhibition of the Grand Palais, "Curiously, while various witnesses say that the idea and the term of Orphism were launched by Apollinaire to proposes three works by Kupka exhibited at the Golden Section show, including Complexe, the name of the Czech painter does not appear in the Aesthetic Meditations, nor elsewhere in his subsequent journalistic writings. Brigitte Leal continues: "Apollinaire quoted Kupka, but finally removed it from the published version. According to the research conducted on this subject, it seems that it was under the pressure of Robert Delaunay who did not want to share the spotlight with Kupka. "

Pascal Rousseau explains: "Delaunay certainly played a role, he certainly put Apollinaire under his control, but this is also due to Apollinaire who is himself a foreigner and who needs legitimacy [...]. It is because his absence from Apollinaire's text that has created a lot of bitterness in Kupka and has contributed to his withdrawal. "

Pacifist at heart, Kupka engages on the front alongside Blaise Cendrars, probably in search of legitimacy too. His production is stopped, as it will be during the Second World War, during which he finds himself very isolated in Paris under the Vichy regime while he is firmly anti-Nazi. These stops in his artistic production led to breaks and timeouts in his career.


Beyond these cyclical breaks, Kupka never had "certain line or path followed, there were immediately breaks from one work to another", as the art historian Serge Fauchereau notes, in the documentary dedicated to the artist. Preoccupied above all by the translation of an inner world, he never seemed to stop looking. The result is a bushy and complex work, and this intrinsic complexity to his work allows undoubtedly explanation of a slow recognition.

Born in Czechoslovakia, where he was very interested in spiritualism and became a medium himself, he spent several years in Vienna, immersed in the seething cultural context of the Secession. His works are deeply imbued with the spirit of Mitteleuropa. Close to a time of followers of the extravagant painter-prophet Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, he became a vegetarian, practiced naturism and developed a mystical and esoteric vision of nature. He is passionate about Theosophy. His approach to color has its roots in Baudelairian synesthesia. He is also very erudite, fascinated by the scientific discoveries of his time (the rayograms, the microcosm, etc.) which undoubtedly influenced his paintings of 1911 in which he decomposed movement and forms through the prism of colors, as in the sublime Woman in triangles. His immense culture carries all the encyclopedic knowledge of the 19th century that permeates his works. "He illustrated among others the le Cantique des cantiques et L'Encyclopédie of Elisha Reclus" says Brigitte Leal. He is great connoisseur of ancient authors, so that some of his creations are paintings to messages, and this message is very complex. It is notably a very Nietzschean painting, which does not correspond at all to the traditional evolution of French art.

At first glance, Kupka's art is very seductive. His paintings in shimmering colors provoke a powerful retinal pleasure. Canvases like Cosmic Spring I (1913-1914) or Count of Pistils and Stamens n1 (1919-1920) are psychedelic works before the hour that provide a very strong optical experience. Still, something resists. His paintings never deliver easily. Pascal Rousseau adds: "His work is not very legible, it is irreducible to a single interpretation, it resists and is imbued with a multitude of sources: esoteric, scientific, musical ..." His Disks of Newton (1912) ), for example, are not simply an analysis of color in reference to the scientific research of Issac Newton but also a vision of the cosmos. We see this also in Amorpha, fugue in two colors, which is a simple and imposing picture. The impact is immediate. We know that the lines draw the trajectory of a balloon, but at the same time, Kupka speaks of a "fugue in two colors", evoking the formal structure of music.

The paintings of Kupka are all the result of a long elaboration, which contributes to their complexity. "But it's very different from a Kandinsky who thought that formal complexity could be a path," says Pascal Rousseau. Kupka is not deliberately complex, he does not look for complexity, but even when the result is simple, remains complex, Kupka is a cerebral, it could be opposed to Duchamp but, in the background, there is also a very conceptual dimension to him. To understand this, we must certainly go back to its Slavic origins. It is anarchist but also deeply mystical. "


Kupka did not have children who could have defended his post mortem work. Research around his work was further hampered by the fact that it was not until 1989 to see his most important theoretical text translated into French, The Creation in the visual arts, written between 1910-1913. In the 1960s, art historians, like Robert Welch with Mondrian, analyzed the spiritual part of abstract avant-gardes. The late translation of Kupka's theoretical work has undoubtedly delayed the understanding of his work and in particular the fine apprehension of the spiritual part of his work. We could use the words of Serge Fauchereau who said: "We will never turn Kupka into Frida Kahlo, we will not get there, there are artists whom it is easy to promote and others not at all."

Kupka is one of them. A free and lonely meteor of modernity that will always see this way, the Czech artist in search of absolute and spiritual purity escapes any attempt at classification, thus participating in deviating from the spotlight of celebrity. He remains one of those artists who fascinate us as much as they escape us.

All photos taken at the exhibition of Kupka-pionnier de l'abstraction at Grand Palais, Paris. Copyright © NaHyun Kate Park. All rights reserved.


ROUSSEAU, Pascal, František Kupka en 15 questions, Hazan, 2018.


Samedi 2 juin, 2018 de 15h à 16h Château de Fontainebleau Salle des Colonnes Conférence intitulé La vérité nue de la peinture. Autour du Rêve de Frantisek Kupka, Professeur Pascal Rousseau (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne).

Exposition Catalogue

KOSINSK, Dorothy, editor, with contributions by Jaroslav Anděl [ et al.], Painting the universe : František Kupka, pioneer in abstraction, Published on the occasion of an exhibition held at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1 June - 24 Aug. 1997; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 11 Oct. 1997 - 4 Jan. 1998; National Gallery in Prague, Collection of Modern Art, 2 Feb. - 10 May 1998, Ostfildern-Ruit, [Germany] : G. Hatje ; New York : Distribution in the U.S. by DAP, c1997.

LÉAL, Brigitte, BRULLÉ, Pierre, Kupka - pionnier de l'abstraction, (GrandPalais, Galeries nationales du 21 Mars au 30 Juillet 2018), RMN, 2018.

Radio emission

ROUSSEAU, Pascal, Kupka, abstraction faite , 2 April, 2018, France Culture

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