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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 24 APRIL 2018 — Some 300 paintings, manuscripts, photographs and engravings by Frantisek Kupka, the little-known Czech painter, are attracting the attention of a Parisian public more accustomed to hearing Mondrian or Kandinsky acknowledged as the ‘inventor’ of abstract art.

Born in Eastern Bohemia in 1871, Kupka began studying at the Prague School of Fine Arts where he experimented with allegories, religious paintings, historical themes and symbolism, and the exhibition, presented in chronological order, opens with an early work, Le Bibliomane. The painting depicts a young man absorbed in a book while three girls seek to distract him. An avid reader, mystical and contemplative, one imagines this to be an image of the artist himself.

František Kupka: Le Bibliomane

After a brief stay in Vienna, Kupka finally settled in Paris in 1896, earning his living as a commercial illustrator and political cartoonist. The caricatures, often ferocious, which were published in the revue,  L’Assiette au beurre, contributed to his growing fame and his pared down, no-nonsense approach emerged in his later abstract works.

La Petite Fille au ballon, an attractive, impressionist-style canvas representing Andrée, the small daughter of Kupka’s companion, was the starting point in 1908 for the artist’s non-figurative works. A series of drawings were made of the girl and the ball in an extraordinary work of interacting arcs and curves, features that were to recur repeatedly in his subsequent pieces. Another highlight of the exhibition which cleverly demonstrated Kupka’s continual quest for abstraction was his impressive 1909/1910 Grand nu, an imposing sculptural woman completed after his installation in a new workshop at Puteaux, just outside Paris. It was a move which marked a new stage in his development. The illusion of volume in the canvas, inspired by the X rays discovered by the doctor Wilhelm Rontgen, was given by the use of differing colours and shades. Colour for Kupka was an integral form of expression.

The painting also paved the way for such extraordinary works as Les Touches de piano. Le Lac, a work which in turn led to a series of "verticals" including the 1913 Plans verticaux 111, a painting dominated by an imposing violet bar, accompanied by two less important dark grey stripes
against a matt pale grey background, and the later Peinture abstraite, three black lines on a stark white sheet. With his search for the "essentials", he simplified everything until he arrived at the blank sheet of white, barely touched with black, which he professed "contained everything". Where could future artists go from there? Such a new concept earned the name of orphisme, coined by the French poet Apollinaire, stemming from the mythological figure of Orpheus.

František Kupka:  Amorpha, Warm Chromatic, 1911-1912

1912 also saw the completion of Amorpha, fugue à deux couleurs together with Amorpha, chromatique chaude  which were presented at the Salon d’automne in Paris in 1912, both pieces currently considered to be the first non-figurative works exhibited to the public. Greeted with astonishment followed by sarcasm, they were ridiculed as an attempt to portray the works of Johann Sebastian Bach in paint. Undeterred, and oblivious as to what was thought of him, the work was followed by Localisations de mobiles graphiques I,  a vibrant, kaleidoscopic canvas, an intriguing mass of broken lines and overlapping angles in shades of blue and red, two of his dominant colours.

František Kupka:  Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours

This remarkable exhibition thus covers the artist’s entire career, from his early works characterized by symbolism, to his growing importance in avant-garde Paris. Each stage in his development is clearly indicated in five distinct sections, each showing the key moments of his long life. One can follow his move towards abstraction from 1912 onwards, in the cycle of organic colourful paintings ending with his geometrical abstraction in the 1950’s, the works towards the end of his life at the age of 86, possibly having less appeal to the general public.

From the beginning one can see and appreciate the man’s interest in philosophy, religion, poetry, technology and science, the exhibition throwing light not only on the origins of abstract works, but also on the personality of this fascinating artist who insisted that abstract art in itself did
not exist as painting itself was a concrete art.

Headline image: Frantisek Kupka (1871 - 1957).

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. 

Kupka: Pioneer of Abstraction
Through 30 July 2018
Grand Palais
3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower
75008 Paris
Tel: 33 (0)1 44 13 17 17

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