The path to abstraction
František Kupka's journey to pure form, motion and color
Posted: January 2, 2013
Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors represented an early breakthrough in abstract art.
František Kupka (1871-1957) didn't spring from the head of Zeus as an abstract painter. It was an evolutionary process that, admittedly, went through a fairly rapid progression once he moved to Paris in 1895. An exhibition organized by the National Gallery for its Salm Palace location, which recently opened after an extensive reconstruction, shows the evolution of Kupka's art from his figurative paintings from the fin de siècle to the masterpiece of pure form and rhythmic motion that emerged early in the second decade of the 20th century.
Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors, which he made in 1912, is generally acknowledged to be Kupka's first fully nonobjective painting and an early breakthrough in abstract art. This year marks the centenary of Kupka's presentation of this painting at the Salon d'Automne in Paris along with Amphora: Warm Chromatics, owned by Museum Kampa.
The seeds of Kupka's path to spiritually imbued chromatic abstraction were planted in his homeland many years before he produced his first abstract canvas. His first art teacher schooled the young Kupka in the importance of color and geometric patterns in folk art and costumes. From a subsequent teacher who was a Nazarene painter Kupka was exposed to the idea that works could express religious or spiritual qualities.
After leaving Prague in 1891 to study at the academy in Vienna, he arrived at a key epiphany: Musical concepts could be applied to painting. It was also in Vienna that theosophy began to influence Kupka's work more significantly, as it similarly did other pioneers of abstraction, particularly Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian.
at National Gallery-Salm Palace Ends March 3, 2013. Hradčanské nám. 1, Prague 1-Hradčany.
Open Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Kupka's interest in mysticism, the occult and theosophy directly inspired his attempt to express dynamic movement in his art. Further, he was fascinated by the fourth dimension and such scientific advances of the day as chronophotography, which enabled the capturing of progressive movement within a single image. Color and rhythm also became essential to Kupka's painting.
Later, in Kupka's breakthrough year of 1912, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire would apply the term Orphism, a stylistic heading he coined primarily to describe the work of Kupka. Derived from the name of the mythical singer and poet Orpheus, the label referred to the correlation between color and music, in contrast to the monochromatic phase Cubism was going through at the time.
When Kupka moved to a Paris suburb in 1905, he became acquainted with the so-called Puteaux Cubists, a close-knit group centered around Jacques Villon and also including Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. Despite a shared interest in simultaneity of vision, Kupka didn't subscribe to Cubism, which he declared to be too static. One canvas each by Gleizes and Metzinger is included in the show - the only works in the exhibition not by Kupka. Both paintings were borrowed from U.S. museums especially for the exhibition, mainly because they were presented alongside Amorpha at the 1912 Salon d'Automne, but also because of Kupka's personal association with the Puteaux Cubists.
Before the main section of the exhibition, the show is introduced by a selection of almost 40 works - paintings, pastels and drawings - that Prague's Museum Kampa/Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation acquired last December. They are being presented to the public for the first time. Even before this addition, Museum Kampa had a significant collection of works by Kupka, whom the museum's founder, Meda Mládek, befriended in Paris when she was studying art history there.
The main section of the exhibition is arranged chronologically, mapping Kupka's development through the paintings he submitted to Parisian salons from 1899 to 1913.
The show's centerpiece, Amorpha, belongs to the National Gallery, where it is a highlight of the collection of modern and contemporary art. Immediately leading up to Amorpha is a series of nine studies for the painting, seven of which are on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art while two belong to Kampa. These studies afford a unique insight into the variations Kupka considered before making the final painting.
For this exhibition the National Gallery has borrowed important Kupka paintings from major institutions in the United States and France - names that have long been absent from labels in shows held there. Also heartening is the news that the National Gallery is planning a major Kupka retrospective for 2017, which would be presented in Prague and travel to Paris and New York. After more than a decade of self-imposed isolation, this exhibition and the planned retrospective are a signal that the National Gallery is ready to re-enter the international art world - and what better way to do so than with František Kupka as a calling card.
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at