PARIS — František Kupka (aka Frank or François Kupka) has been routinely recognized more for his influence on Marcel Duchamp’s paintings than for his own. This is at long last expiring with his remarkable retrospective of some 300 paintings, manuscripts, photographs and engravings curated by Brigitte Leal, Markéta Theinhardt, and Pierre Brullé at the Grand Palais.
Kupka was an artist’s artist of strong subjective conviction, grounding his paintings in ideas mined from mysticism, radical politics, philosophy (like Henri Bergson’s “flux” concept that imagines that intuition’s grasp of the perpetual becoming of time to be the innermost core of meaningful reality), poetry, science, and Asian cultures. Born in Eastern Bohemia in Austria-Hungary in 1871, he was an adventurous intellectual who after graduating the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague stirred through fin-de-siècle Vienna before moving to bohemian Montmartre in 1896. There he began drawing heated satirical illustrations, like “Balance All That” (circa 1901), for radical French magazines such as L’Assiette au beurre, a satirical magazine with anarchist political leanings.
Inspired by the Neo-Impressionism, his early Paris paintings include leering portraits of hookers and pimps, like “The Guy” (1910), evocative of a Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painting, but with a looser luminosity. These somewhat derivative but highly enjoyable works soon develop into staggering semi-abstract paintings that mix women into expanding non-human color spectrums, such as in “Plans by Color (Woman in Triangles)” (1911). Next comes the colorful “pure” 1912 breakthrough works of organic abstraction, and then an unanticipated cycle of Dada-like depictions of machinery where the subject turns into a vast machine of perpetual and visceral becoming. Towards the end of the exhibition are astonishingly stark, minimal, geometrical abstractions that continued to push the boundaries of nonrepresentational art.
Before departing Bohemia, versatile Kupka experimented with symbolism and religious allegorical themes — and this exotic taste for evocation informed his subsequent experiments with nonrepresentational color, form, space, and line to the point where this little-known Czech painter is now heralded as an “inventor” of pure abstract art. This claim is supported with his vertiginous Orphist-Cubist works, “Discs of Newton” (1912), with its roiling solidity that takes on an almost sculptural quality, and “Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors” (1912), inspired by Notre Dame’s stained glass windows and exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1912. In “Amorpha” time becomes a vigorous loop (no longer a line) as a process torques within itself to become what it always was to begin with. As such, it not only is one of the earliest examples of abstract painting, but demonstrates the artist’s interest in mystical correspondences between painting and spiritual notions that Charlene Spretnak hones in on in her important book The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art.
Looking at Kupka we see an intense channeling of occult vibrations and shimmering realities that asks viewers if they too have experienced their life this way. As a young teen Kupka had worked for a saddle maker who introduced him to notions of radiant spirituality that he would later draw upon in drawings and paintings that explored the relationship between phantasm, color, and geometry. However, many of Kupka’s titles are musical, since he intended for the viewer to look for and feel vibrations as in music — a common theme in Orphism which sought to evoke temporal and spiritual sensations through abstract means. While his work is associative and free ranging, it may be approached as a series of meditations on phantasmagoric vibrations (both real and imagined), or as concrete. But to me he seems to be arguing that chromatics is structural akin to chord structures in music.
Such subtle and heady considerations are hinted at with his very early Romantic painting on loan from Prague Castle, “The Bibliomaniac” (1897) which depicts three pretty girls seeking to divert a young man absorbed in a book. In that Kupka was an avid reader of mystical and contemplative material, it is legitimate to see an image of the artist himself in it. Still, he was no nerdy book worm and his early sensual skill at painting audacious subjects in audacious colors is evidenced with “Little Girl with Ball”(1908). Turning to ephemeral movement with “Water (The Bather)” (1909), he depicts a nude woman being dissolved in small waves of concentric circles. It melts the heart.
Less than a year later, in “Mrs. Kupka in the Verticals” (1910), he beautifully lodges his wife, Eugénie Straub Broad, in a prismatic spectrum of fractured strokes of color, her face barely visible within saturated color patches that evoke neo-pagan ecstasy (and Gustav Klimt). It has an almost psychedelic aura, though a psychedelia with a folk horror edge to it. The implication here, that reverberates throughout the exhibition, is that flesh cannot be extricated from the metaphysics of abstract machinery. After keeping it in his studio for nearly 45 years, Kupka sold the canvas to MoMA while also gifting nearly 500 early gouache, watercolor, and pencil studies to them before passing away in 1957 at the age of 85.
Kupka’s paintings suggest that our intuitions about visual reality relate intimately to our intuitions about the vibrant body, something he deliciously demonstrates with his affecting “Family Portrait” (1910) and “Big Nude” (1910), completed after setting up his studio at Puteaux, where he met the young Marcel Duchamp. These, and other wonderful colorful works, are clearly Fauvist flavored in their application of strong contrasting complementary colors that are used to depict vivacious but very relaxed figures.
That work emerged from the remarkable — if not fantasia — “Piano Keys. Lake” (1909), that shows the black and white keys of a piano rising vertically up the picture plane and mingling with the ripples of the lake. The wavy reflections and everything else is enveloped in a festive aura of wistful twilight. Like musical notes, the imagery here is vibrating, oscillating, and interpenetrating to an extent that it dissolves the objective world. It is a synesthetic step towards what Walt Disney would learn from Oskar Fischinger and apply in the abstract section of his film Fantasia (1940).
Building on this body of work, great rhythms of prismatic forms would come to transform Kupka canvases into dynamic scenarios of spiritual ecstasy. Clouds, stars, moons and suns inspire bursting abstractions like “Cosmic Spring I” (1919), “Cosmic Spring II” (1920), “The Climb” (1923) and “Around a Point” (1930). But that same year, in 1930, the explosive exultation suddenly is pared way, way down, as in the startlingly simple and meditative “Abstract Painting” (1930): just three thin black lines on a stark white background, painted at a time when he was joining the Abstraction-Creation group and connecting with De Stijl (aka Neoplasticism) artists and the Bauhaus Design School. Recognized by MoMA’s founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. who placed him in the seminal 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, Kupka continued painting non-illusionist compositions that transmit a pleasurable tension when read as bounded and polymorphous, like “Circle and Straight Lines” (1937).
Though for the most part a visually lush and colorfully attractive show, there’s something slightly subversive about František Kupka: Pioneer of Abstraction. Today, art has become almost indistinguishable from popular cultural commodities, but Kupka stands out as a reasonable alternative: a comparatively unpopular and ignored painter who values transcendental metaphysics and clandestine mystical technologies over accessible human-centric assumptions. His taciturn taste for painting that churns celestial concreteness suggests ways of experiencing life outside of the normal garrulous explanations; ways closer to Speculative Realism’s anti-anthropomorphic transcendental materialism.
From beginning to end I appreciate Kupka’s avant-garde interests in an artistic-philosophical spirituality that is both poetic and technological. His extraterrestrial abstractions and Picabia-like machine paintings in particular point away from the humanist niceties of a human-centric world and line up with Duchamp’s bachelor machine, as initiated in “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1923). As such, Kupka’s paintings are not only eye-catching but can be appreciated as objects of occult ritual riffing on non-humanist modes of expression. They evoke an aesthetic that is simultaneously cosmic, ancient, and as uncannily new as artificial intelligence.
František Kupka: Pioneer of Abstraction is on view at the Grand Palace museum (3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, the 13th district, Paris) through July 30, and will subsequently travel to the Prague National Gallery and then to the Helsinki Ateneum Art Museum.