Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) was a Czech painter and illustrator who lived most of his life in Paris. He was one of the first artists to paint abstract canvasses.
Frank Kupka was born September 23, 1871, in eastern Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, the son of a small town notary. Unhappy living with his father and stepmother, he often left home, spending time in a Capuchin monastery where he was fascinated by the murals the monks painted. He eventually wandered from place to place in Bohemia, making his living as an itinerant painter of commercial signs, banners, and saddles. At the age of 16 he was sent to a local craft school and later to the Prague School of Art. From there he went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and eventually to Paris in 1894. In Paris he attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Académie Jullian, supporting himself doing magazine and book illustrations and giving drawing lessons. Kupka married a French widow, Eugenie Straub, and lived in Paris until his death in 1957.
In the first decade of the 20th century Kupka became known for his illustrations and his etchings and prints. His painting during this period was conventional, a popular mixture of Art Nouveau, French Symbolism, and Eastern European Decorative Arts. While he showed in the official salon exhibitions, he did not receive much attention until after 1909-1910, when his work went through profound changes. He abandoned traditional renderings of nude women, landscapes, and still-lifes and began painting what he felt was the distillation of movement into line, form, and color with only a lingering trace of a subject. His canvasses at this time were dense, painted in bright, pure colors with swinging and vibrating arches and curves. A series of disc paintings, remarkably similar to the disc paintings of Robert Delaunay, was the result of a fascination with the motion of his stepdaughter bouncing a ball and his desire to capture its dynamics rather than appearance. His painting was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Despite his professed anarchism, he joined the French army and fought in the trenches alongside the French poet Blaise Cendrars. He was wounded and returned to Paris.
After the war Kupka worked in the French Department of Defense, taught students from the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, and resumed painting. He became committed to the idea of abstraction, which he continually refined until his death. He considered his work to be research into giving ideas plastic form. He claimed his paintings illustrated ideas in science, physics, astronomy, and biology, in all of which he was widely read. He was also knowledgeable about world religions and was particularly interested in the modern esoteric religion Theosophy, which tried to reconcile spiritualism with science. Throughout his life Kupka had a strong interest and, some claim, an involvement with the occult.
Later in his life, almost like a scientist, Kupka divided his work into categories that were thematic rather than chronological, such as "Fugue for Two Colors," "The Organic Cycle," and "Stories of Shapes and Colors." Kupka worked on several paintings at a time, often working and reworking a single canvas over a period of years. At times his work resembled the spare, geometric paintings of the Russian Constructivist Kasemir Malevich and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, while at other times he would resume working in themes that suggested his earliest abstractions. His bright palette and overall composition remained constant.
The years around World War I were active ones for European painters, and Kupka worked and showed alongside such other Parisian artists as Robert Delaunay and Marcel DuChamps and his brother Jacques DuChamps, as well as the Italian Futurists and German Expressionists. But by nature Kupka was irascible. He feuded with his Parisian colleagues and withdrew his work from at least one important exhibition, "The Section d'Or" in 1912, because of aesthetic disagreements with the other exhibitors. He felt that they were negative, decadent, and academic. Compared to their rational formalism, Kupka was a romantic and a mystic. He was particularly at odds with Delaunay as their work overlapped at a time of great competition among painters to establish themselves as the originators of new ideas.
After these early years Kupka was not associated with any circle of artists and critics and was written about less and less. Gradually he was almost forgotten as the history of Modernism was written. After several shows in the early 1920s he worked privately and exhibited rarely until 1946, when he had a major show in Prague followed by one in New York and finally a major retrospective in Paris at the Musee d'Art Moderne in 1958, a year after his death. After that there were a number of exhibitions in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, as well as a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1974. Kupka's work gained critical attention beginning in the 1970s as the history of 20th-century painting was examined more broadly to include the work of such secondary figures as Kupka, who were slightly out of the mainstream, but nonetheless important artists in this period.
There are two important monographs on the life and work of Frank Kupka. One, Frank Kupka: Pioneer of Abstract Art, by Ludmila Vachtova (London, 1968), is a chronological consideration of his career with little insight into his place in 20th-century painting. It is nevertheless an important source of facts and information and includes many color reproductions of his paintings and early illustrations. The catalog from the Guggenheim Museum exhibition (1974) is a more historical and up-to-date study. □