Frantisek Kupka – Czech pioneer of abstract art

Frantisek-Kupka-The First Step

It is difficult to choose one work or even one style paradigmatic for Frantisek Kupka, since he proved to be equally talented as a Symbolist painter, abstract artist, art theorist, caricaturist and fashion designer. Born in Czech Bohemia in 1873, he studied painting in Prague, Vienna and Paris, picking up different influences in each of these artistic centers. However, he was strongly individualistic, refusing to identify with any art group or movement.

Frantisek Kupka - Resistance, or The Black Idol, 1903Frantisek Kupka’s family was a poor one, and he did not attend secondary school, although he showed considerable artistic talent, as well as an interest in history. He was sent to learn the saddler’s craft, which will strongly influence his artistic career. Namely, the saddler who was teaching him was involved with the local esoteric sect, practicing spiritualistic sessions. Kupka readily attended the meetings and even became a spiritualist medium, which will later become his occasional source of income. Accordingly, the earliest phase of his painting is marked by strong interest in spiritualism and the occult. Although his form was realistic, the subjects he chose were otherworldly, sometimes eerie and even frightening. It is said that Kupka had been a depressive and daydreaming personality. Cosmic phenomena and Ancient Egypt were his frequent motifs, with sporadic inspiration by Greek mythology. It is disputed if, in this early period, he was more influenced by Viennese Jugendstil or Parisian Art Nouveau. Both styles were highly ornamental, which was probably decisive from Kupka’s abandonment of pictorial narration in favor of studying shapes, their harmony and colors. It is also important to mention that, as a saddler’s apprentice, Kupka traveled through Bohemia and studied folk art patterns, which could also entice his love of abstraction. Kupka was simultaneous with Kandinsky and Malevich in turning towards the pure form, free of literary and figurative allusions. At the “Autumn Salon” in Paris 1912, he showed some of the earliest abstract paintings in art history, entitled Study for Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colours and Study for Amorpha, Warm Chromatics. These practical explorations were followed by Kupka’s writings about nature and role of art. They were influenced by Alois Riegl, his Viennese Art History professor, who was convinced that art should reflect the inner life of man. Kupka approached art theory in a psychological manner, trying to find the “state of being” in colors, and speculating about parallels between visual arts and music. He also explored the perceptions of color in different states of mind, namely under the influence of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or ascetic fasting. In his correspondences he reported about visions, some of which were mere flashes of colored spots, while others were highly elaborated:

“Yesterday I experienced a split consciousness where it seemed I was observing the earth from outside. I was in great empty space and saw the planets rolling quietly. After that it was difficult to come back to the trivia of everyday life . . .”

This quote reveals Kupka as a genuine escapist who strived to surpass the boundaries of human existence. It is not therefore surprising that subjects and figures became irrelevant to his artistic experiments. By painting, he was trying to connect with “higher reality” or the world invisible to the common eye.  Contemporaries were not enthusiastic about his abstract works, but today he is celebrated as one of the pioneers of modern art. He died in Paris in 1957, and is buried in famous Pere Lachaise cemetery.

About the author

Vesna Adic

Vesna Adic holds an MA degree in Art History from the University of Belgrade and has graduated with the Mention of Excellence from the Paideia Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She is a certified curator, an experienced public speaker and a freelance writer. Her major interests are history, 19th century art & literature, music and traveling.