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František Kupka - Biography and Legacy

Czech Painter, Illustrator, and Writer

Born: September 23, 1871 - Opocno, Eastern Bohemia, Czech Republic
Died: June 24, 1957 - Puteaux, France
Movements and Styles:

Biography of František Kupka


František Kupka, also known as Frank Kupka or François Kupka, was born in Eastern Bohemia in 1871, the oldest of five children of the notary Vaclav Kupka and his wife Josefa. For financial reasons, he left school and started work at the age of 13 for a saddle maker. This lack of formal schooling remained a source of humiliation for Kupka throughout his life and inspired him to engage in extensive self-education. Although he disliked his job, his first employer introduced him to spiritualism and he incorporated ideas relating to this into his early work. After a couple of years Kupka left this role and travelled around Bohemia earning money through sign painting. During this time he cemented his interests in philosophy, history and painting. Upon his return he enrolled in Jaromer Technical College where his work came to the attention of the Swedish artist Alois Studnička who started his formal artistic education and instructed him in drawing and the decorative arts.

Early Training

Strunicka prepared Kupka for entry to the Academy of Arts in Prague in 1889. Here the young artist took classes in sacred and historic painting under the tutelage of František Sequens. In 1892 he moved to Vienna and enrolled in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts concentrating on allegorical and symbolic subjects. He had some success as an artist in the city and was commissioned to paint a handful of portraits for members of the court. He also read heavily, devouring everything from anatomy to philosophy and chemistry to witchcraft and his interest in Eastern philosophy, Theosophy and occult practices dates from this period. He combined these various spiritual sources to develop his own belief system which focused on the existence of an invisible reality hidden beneath surface appearances.

In 1896, the artist left Vienna and visited London and Scandinavia before settling in Paris. He briefly attended the Academie Julian and continued his studies with Jean-Pierre Laurens at the École des Beaux-Arts. Like his countryman Alfons Mucha, Kupka earnt his living by working as an illustrator, cartoonist and designer, creating posters for cabarets such as the famous Le Chat Noir. Coming from a modest background and having struggled to make ends meet throughout his artistic training, he was sensitive to the social and political events in France and grew close to Parisian anarchist circles. Along with artists such Theophile Steinlen, Jean-Louis Forain and Felix Vallotton, his cartoons were commissioned by satirical, socialist and anarchist reviews including l'Assiette au Beurre and Les Temps nouveaux. In 1904, he illustrated the final volume of La Nouvelle Géographie universelle, la terre et les hommes written by Elisee Reclus, a renowned geographer and important figure in the anarchist movement and this helped to establish his reputation. He also began to experiment with different styles of painting incorporating elements of the Fauvist, Symbolist and Post-Impressionist work that he saw in the capital.

Mature Period

In 1906, Kupka married Eugenie Straub, known as Nini and moved to Puteaux, a village on the outskirts of the capital where rent was lower. Here he continued to work as a cartoonist but also began to focus on his painting again and around 1910 his style became increasingly abstract, capturing ideas of color and motion, in part inspired by the first Futurist Manifesto published in 1909.

In Puteaux, his neighbor was Jacques Villon who, along with his brothers Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and other artists such as Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, formed the Section d'Or (also called the Puteaux Group), a collection of artists associated with what is also referred to as Salon Cubism. Kupka attended many of the group's gatherings and met artists, writers, scientists, and mathematicians who had an impact on his work. Through this association Kupka, along with Robert Delaunay and Sonia Delaunay, developed a type of Cubism focused on bright colors and the purely abstract. In 1912 the poet and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire named this type of work Orphism, specifically referencing three of Kupka's works as examples of the style. Writing a year later, Apollinaire described Orphism as "the art of painting new totalities with elements that the artist does not take from visual reality, but creates entirely by himself...An Orphic painter's works should convey an untroubled aesthetic pleasure, but at the same time a meaningful structure and sublime significance". Orphism did not survive beyond World War One, but is now viewed as a key transitionary style between Cubism and abstract art.

In 1912, Kupka presented his painting Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors at the Salon d'Automne, this monumental composition was one of the first abstract paintings shown in Paris and was very different from popular art of the period, the public, on the whole, reacted negatively to it. In the same year, he exhibited alongside his friends at the Salon of the Section d'Or and in 1913, he was included in the Cubist room at the Salon des Independants. Kupka, however, did not wish to be associated with any particular artistic movement, commenting to a friend that "in the last Salon d'Automne I had a beautiful place of honor, unfortunately in the room with the Cubists with whom I am almost on a parallel. It is with me as it was with Degas, who was classified as an Impressionist."

In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, Kupka enrolled in the Foreign Legion with other overseas artists and writers including Swiss poet Blaise Cendras. His wife attempted to accompany the unit on their march to Picardy but after the first day she was arrested by the officer in charge and returned to Paris, she later travelled to the Front to see him. The artist returned to Puteaux with frostbite in his foot from standing in freezing water in the trenches and started to work again on paintings he had left behind. After the war, many artists returned to figurative painting, Kupka was no exception and he reintegrated human figures into some of his work. He also became interested in machines and mechanization and incorporated these into his paintings. In 1921, he had his first solo show in Paris at the Russian gallery, Galerie Povolozky. During these years, the Prague Academy appointed the artist as a Professor and it was Kupka's responsibility to introduce Czech scholarship students to French culture and art.

Although Kupka completed his book, Creation in the Plastic Arts in 1913 he struggled to find a publisher for it in Paris. It was eventually published in 1923 in Prague. The text summarized his ideas on abstraction and his own development towards it as well as examining scientific and metaphysic theories. In particular, Kupka discussed the impact of color on human emotion believing that different colors provoked different sensations in a viewer. He summarized this stating that "a point, a line, an outline, any indicator of location in space is a deliberate statement which reflects what is taking place in the mind (or the 'soul') of the artist. But color and shade are positive in themselves, imposing themselves as elements able to make an impression even before they have been given any intentional form".

Late Period

Late In 1931 Kupka returned to pure abstraction and he was a founding member of Abstraction-Création, a group that was dedicated to the recognition and dissemination of abstract art and saw itself as a counterbalance to the highly popular Surrealism movement. The group attracted major abstract artists of the period including Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Naum Gabo and had a total membership of around four hundred. They also formed links with modernist groups in other countries such as the Seven and Five Society and Unit One in the UK. The group was active until 1936, holding regular exhibitions across Europe and publishing five yearbooks (1932-36) entitled Abstraction-création: Art non-figuratif. It was as part of this group that Kupka focused more intensely on abstract work inspired by music including Jazz-Hot No. 1 (1935) and Music (1936). In these years, poor health forced Kukpa to spend a lot of time on the French Riviera. In 1936, he was included in the major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Cubism and Abstract Art and alongside Mucha at the Galerie du Jeu de Paume.

During the 1940s Kupka started to be officially and internationally recognized. The Czech government as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased several of his pieces and in 1946 the Galerie S.V.U. Mánes in Prague held a retrospective of his work. In the 1950s he held several solo shows in New York and he continued to work until his death in 1957 at the age of 86. He died in Puteaux in the same house where he had lived since 1906.

The Legacy of František Kupka

Kupka worked successfully in a variety of styles and forms throughout his career. He was a popular and successful illustrator and cartoonist, but he is most remembered as an innovative figure in the move towards abstraction and one of the first completely non-representational artists. Due to his reluctance to be associated with any individual movement, however, his significant contribution to abstract painting is not as recognized as that of Kandinsky, Malevitch, or Mondrian. Furthermore, Kupka operated in unpredictable ways, re-working older canvases, giving multiple pieces the same name and even destroying or making replicas of his own work and this approach has hampered historians trying to reclaim his role in the creation of modern abstraction. Through his role with the Prague Academy, Kupka's teachings also left their mark on a generation of Czech artists who were inspired by his abstract work including František Foltýn who attended lectures by Kupka in Paris during the mid-1920s.

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Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"František Kupka Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 13 Apr 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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