On the rare occasions he is written about, Czech painter František Kupka is lumped into an international group of early abstract painters that includes Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and, in particular – due to their affinities for applied arts and their residence in Puteaux – the Frenchman Robert Delaunay and his Russian partner, Sonia Delaunay (née Terk). During the early years of the 20th century, it’s possible to trace the emergence of modern abstraction through the singular practices of these artists, all of whom approached painting in their own idiosyncratic styles, which bore the marks of their own national art forms and personal interests – some even discovering abstraction by accident. (As one story goes, in 1910 Kandinsky stumbled upon the potentialities of abstraction by seeing his painting upside-down in a dimly lit room after returning to his studio at night.) Kupka is thought to have first publicly displayed a non-figurative painting at the Salon d’Automne in 1912. It comes as a surprise, then, that the Czech artist – perhaps the first publicly exhibited abstract painter in the Western modern canon – remains so little known.
A permanent exhibition of Kupka’s works at the Museum Kampa, a modest museum built in a former mill in a verdant park near Charles Bridge, seeks to ameliorate this by creating a historical narrative around his artistic evolution. While every landmark abstract painter had their own ideas about what constituted abstraction, Kupka’s approach stands apart for its blending of Bohemian spirituality with a total, self-constructed system of logic. The tangible influences on his style are numerous: his teenage apprenticeship to a saddle maker, who taught him to become a spiritualist medium; and his training at the local arts and crafts school in Jarome˘r˘, which emphasized the traditions of his native Bohemia and taught the young Kupka about ornament as well as how to draw by breaking down complex forms into basic geometric shapes. The nature of Kupka’s early work as a commercial illustrator and political cartoonist, with its pared-down line quality, later translated to his abstractions. In 1896, he moved to Paris during the city’s explosion of interest in cinema and was highly influenced by the invention of Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic gun in 1882, which captured various stages of movement in one photograph, as a precursor to cinematography. Kupka’s concern with encapsulating movement, action and rhythm can be seen most plainly in the works in ‘Moving Blues’ at Museum Kampa, an exhibition comprising works borrowed from international collections, which specifically focuses on his studies of movement within the ‘cosmic realms of sea, sky and land’, according to the exhibition catalogue. The show features works from the ‘Moving Blues’ series, which are marked by undulating, at times jagged, rings rendered in cool whites, blues and greens, as well as related studies and reference material.
Kupka reportedly spent many months in the village of Théoule, on the French Riviera, and found inspiration through bathing and watching others swim in the blue water. Rather than attempting to mimic the effect of the water’s movements, he endeavoured to create an abstract representation that both recalled the water and reproduced his views about the cosmic harmony of the universe. The resulting canvases bear dramatic geometric shapes that have been painted and repainted over the course of decades in various blues. At first glance, they are, to some extent, ugly, due to their privileging of optical effect.
The fact that Kupka was a notoriously poor archivist, giving the same titles to multiple paintings and even destroying or making replicas of his own work, further impedes the scholarship of this fiercely idiosyncratic artist. While his paintings may not be immediately recognizable as the stuff of great historical abstraction, Kupka’s work constitues a corner of art history that is both overlooked and refreshingly singular.
First published in Issue 180