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Amorpha, Fugue in two Colours

Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957). National Gallery – Prague. 1911-1912.

Amorpha, Warm Chromatics

The Czech Museum of Fine Arts, Meda Mladek Collection – Prague. 1911-1912.

Self-portrait among Roses

The Czech Museum of Fine Arts, Meda Mladek Collection – Prague. 1894-1895.

The Cathedral

The Czech Museum of Fine Arts, Meda Mladek Collection – Prague. 1912-1913.

‘Amorpha, Fugue in two colours’ shows swirling arcs in white, red and blue. If we concentrate on the painting, and keep looking at it with concentration, we are taken up in the dancing movement of the lines. The curves interlace, turn and come back to points of origin, to be continued in other curves. There is no subject of any kind in this painting. The colours and strictly delineated areas suffice to painter and viewer. We are thinking of mathematics, of speed, of music that thrills us and makes our soul move. We are in a space quite separate of everyday life. We are in another world, a cool metaphysical world of pure thoughts and super-natural forms. Frantisek Kupka led us unto heights not experienced before and into this new strange world.

The picture was deduced from an image of a girl dancing with a ball Z1 , but nothing but the movement and the colours had remained of the image. These are also the images we perceive in our eyes, with eyelids closed, when we apply pressure to our eyes. Then we see the dancing yet well aligned curves that change constantly and that continue to be seen when the pressure stops.

‘Amorpha, warm Chromatics’ is an analogue painting and yet very different from the ‘Amorpha fugue’. Again, we need to lose ourselves in the image. This painting is the result of many studies of a woman picking flowers. Kupka said that two figures were represented, one coming from the left, the other from the right. Both figures merge in soft red and brown colours. What remains is the warm embrace, an image like two folded hands that point upwards. This is a prayer out of time and space, a presentation of the eeriness of an immaterial thought. And yet the warm colours go deep into us, instil emotions of sympathy; we feel good, satisfied and calm.

Kupka made many other studies of a woman picking flowers, in which the various stages of the act of picking are indicated in one picture. Each stage was only hinted at by vague variations in colours of each form, as the forms pass to an eye's iris. These forms were juxtaposed as in a photograph where successive movements are caught on a long-exposure plate.

Let us now look at ‘The Cathedral’. This painting has to be seen all alone in a wide oblong room, with bright light falling immediately on the picture. So you have to imagine yourself in a large, long hall with only the painting at one end with light falling on it directly. Then it is a marvel of colour and light. A viewer can easily imagine himself in the middle of Chartres cathedral, all alone, amidst the mystic of centuries of devote praying, hopes, submission, pity and silent prayers of the millions that came here with their sufferings or their gratitude. The structure of the cathedral disappears then and in the eye remain only the bright colours of the high stained glass windows. This is the famous ‘Chartres blue’, the main and brightest colour of the Chartres stained glass panes. Kupka went several times to Chartres cathedral to immerse himself in its timeless medieval mystic. One gets dizzy, overwhelmed by the effect of the verticals. The blue and reds dominate. The dark black middle section of the painting creates the effect of space and perspective. This creates the mysterious abyss of death we will all enter one day.

‘Cathedral’ is only one of a whole series of studies that Kupka made on verticals. He showed how combinations of juxtaposed, coloured, vertical bars could inspire dancing, moving effects on viewers. ‘Cathedral’ was directly inspired from Chartres cathedral and Kupka’s own feelings for this monument of religious art in which the fervent devotion of a society was expressed. Even today indeed we look with admiration at these realisations, which would be so expensive to copy now as to be virtually impossible. The Gothic cathedrals and their marvellous coloured windows had been the token of a society that had richness, but to which the whole community contributed. The drive, the energy and the will of our present society to install such monuments of art has waned and the nostalgia for these social undertakings sometimes overwhelm us. But then, of course, we have other ‘cathedrals’.

What experience could lead a painter towards these feelings for what we can only experience with our mind, our hearth, eyes closed?

Frantisek Kupka is one of the foremost pioneers of abstract art. Pure abstract art does not contain a subject anymore, no tree, and no human. It is non-representational, has no meaningful content. In our short discussion of the early paintings of Kupka we saw that some of the subject matter had remained: ‘Amorpha, Fugue in two colours’ was derived of a dancing girl, ‘Amorpha, warm Chromatics’ still contains vaguely a reference to two meeting figures, ‘Cathedral’ refers to stained glass panes. These show the transition from traditional representational art to complete abstract art. Kupka started painting pictures as we were used to see in the previous centuries. And he definitely was a master painter and drawer, as proven by the painting ‘Self-portrait among roses’.

The ‘Self-portrait’ is a figurative masterpiece. The roses are wonderfully drawn to full detail. Kupka was a master drawer and we would have been enchanted by his realistic paintings. ‘Self-portrait’ is a picture of happiness, of a person offering joy and liveliness to the viewer. It is a gift. And the painter is hiding beyond the flowers, offering the gift. He is a mysterious person; the flowers adorn him like a soft Christ giving a sacrifice to viewers. This was really Kupka: mysterious, a mystic, very religious, offering his life for an idea to viewers of art. Kupka was never rich, always poor, always in a world of thoughts and images that was not ours, showing us a way into inner depths outside and above meaning. His message was a spiritual message and in this he met the mystic medieval painters like a Matthias Grünewald. But Kupka liberated himself from subjects; he did not need a subject anymore to reach the heights sought by a Grünewald. Did he succeed in bringing us there? He tried and tried. All his life Kupka tried and tried again.

We have tens of drawings, studies of the same, limited number of Kupka themes over and over again, such as the studies of circles and lines, of verticals. There are tens of studies of ‘Pistils and Stamens’ because he would look deep into the inner flower to look for patterns. And then he would move and play with the patterns until they might have a sense to his mind or at the best bring a new emotion. Kupka was searching, trying to find new truths for us. He sought perfection as well as a Filippo Lippi. Did he succeed? Maybe he did, maybe not. Maybe all such trials and errors and studies are never adequate, can never reach the end, never attain the last truth. But then, this is life. We all search and seek, always look to reach a goal which should bring us to something ultimate that we think will make us immortal. The search always ends in vain, but as so many artists have told us: probably the search is more important than the end. Kupka certainly deserves respect for the trying and he can be honoured as one of the foremost artists and art pioneers of the twentieth century.

Frantisek Kupka was born in 1871 in a small town of Eastern Czechia, then still Bohemia and part of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire Z1 . Very young, before even becoming thirteen, he had to learn a profession. He was apprenticed to a saddle maker who as much as teaching him to work leather, initiated him to spiritism. Kupka would be an adept of spiritism for the rest of his life and at periods earn his living as a medium that could communicate with spirits from the after-life. At sixteen, he left home and travelled in South Bohemia where he saw the intricate patterns of folklore paintings on houses, which have some basis in Islamic tradition Z1 . At seventeen he first returned to the house of his father in Dobruska, where he painted sign-boards for shops, then entered the Academy of Historical and Religious Paintings of Prague. He studied under the Nazarene painter Sequens. The Nazarene movement of German painters, which formed a community in Rome, was strongly dedicated to religion, to spirituality and to a more decorative form of Romantic art.

Kupka would stay till 1892 in Prague, but then he left for the Academy of the capital of the empire, Vienna. Here also he studied under a Nazarene painter, Eisenmenger Z1 . He learned to know an older woman, Maria Bruhn, a Danish fashion designer. Maria Bruhn would support him. He himself continued to be very poor. Kupka struggled between traditional forms of painting and the new forms that started to grow in his mind. Finally, in 1896, twenty-five years old, he arrived in Paris.

Kupka had to earn his living. Maria Bruhn could support him in Paris for only two years; she died of cancer in Vienna Z1 . Kupka performed séances of spiritism, sold himself as a medium. He studied with the French artist Jean-Paul Laurens. In all these evolutions and events, spirituality had a prominent role in Kupka’s life. He had an inclination for spiritism as a medium, Nazarene painters were his masters, he worked with the austere humanist Laurens who mainly used religious themes to represent his ideas, Kupka’s poverty and the drama of Maria Bruhn’s death, all these elements drew Kupka to introspection. Yet he earned his living also by making drawings of the Parisian life for newspapers, for which a keen eye of reality was necessary. He hated this work, though. He of course saw the Moulin Rouge and its frivolous annex world in Montmartre; he met the dancer called ‘La Goulue’ who has been made famous since by Toulouse Lautrec’s pictures and posters.

In 1904 Kupka met Eugénie Straub, the wife of an Alsace officer. They fell in love and came to live together. Eugénie or Nini would remain with him the rest of his life Z1 . Kupka’s paintings were gradually more exhibited. He became more known. He made study after study, most of which he tore up because inadequate to express what he sought. He was obsessively seeking more spirituality in art through the use of colour alone. He studied treatises on the value of colours.

Kupka married Eugénie in 1910 and around that time seemed to have found his final way and style of painting. He started the two paintings that are among the first truly abstract works of Europe, the two ‘Amorpha’ paintings. These two paintings were made almost at the same time. ‘Warm Chromatics’ may have been made somewhat earlier than ‘Fugue’, but the latter painting was exhibited first. Kupka had many contacts with a group of painters in the town of Puteaux near Paris Z1 . He met Robert Delaunay and his wife Sonia there, both pioneers of abstract art, as well as Duchamp-Villon, one of the two brothers of Marcel Duchamp. They had contacts with poets like Blaise Cendrars who was a friend of the Russian émigré Marc Chagall. Sonia Delaunay illustrated a book of poems of Cendrars. Kupka lived in the tight artistic world of Paris.

In 1912, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who also would designate the name ‘Surrealists’, gave the name ‘Orphism’ to the new tendency of cubism of the painters Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. In their paintings colour was more pervasive, after the poetry of the mythological Greek Orpheus. Kupka was considered to be one of those Orphists.

Kupka’s art already had all the elements of subsequent styles and justifications of abstract art. He showed references to music (he was impressed by Johan Sebastian Bach’s fugues, hence the name ‘Fugue in two colours’), references to representations of speed (such as in ‘A fair’), to mathematics (his many paintings and studies of ‘Discs of Newton’) and mechanics (such as ‘Circles and lines’). Finally he experienced also with images of the effects of rays of light, as in ‘Cathedral’. These elements would each separately serve as basic elements for directions in abstract art.

Thus, the early abstracts like Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Delaunay were fascinated by the immediate effect on our senses and soul of music. They wanted to reach the same immediacy of emotion as music by refusing subjects in paintings, so that a viewer’s mind work was more or less switched off. The colours alone would impress emotions in the viewer, in the more direct way.

References to movement by the use of colours and forms like circles and discs, was exploited by Giacomo Balla also around 1912. References to light and light rays were exploited by the Russian painter Mikhail Larionov and his wife Natalia Gontcharova G29 . Mechanics, circles, wheels, and bars were used by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia in France. The painter who was probably the very first abstract artist, the Russian Casimir Malevich, of course used the mathematical simple forms such as circles and rectangles. Malevich painted a black square on a white border. This 'Black Square' was probably the first totally abstract painting ever made, although many of the named painters worked to abstract ideas at the same time. Malevich called his style ‘Suprematism’. Malevich worked the poetic figurative painter Chagall out of the latter’s own-founded Academy of Vitebsk, Russia. Specific abstract style elements were continued by the Dutch Piet Mondriaan and the Russian student of Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, led to a style called ‘Constructivism’ in which artistic forms were aimed to be used for utilitarian functions.

Frantisek Kupka had found alone almost all the elements of the various schools of abstract painting that would emerge from 1910 to the 1930s. He was not known as the father of these movements, but instinctively and painstakingly by continuous trial and error, through study after study he found all the elements that could be used for abstract non-representational art.

All the elements found, why continue? When one painter has applied a new style, then subsequent art is ‘déjà vu’ and much less interesting. This was indeed one of the problems with abstract art: the techniques of visual impression by these means were rapidly exploited and seemed to be exhausted. Some painters indeed reverted to traditional ways of representation. Malevich, for instance, painted a white square on a white border and called this the end to Suprematism. One could go no further. He returned to traditional painting. Delaunay also stopped abstract painting for some years, then started again to use abstract images G29 . Frantisek Kupka however understood that there was no end to the experiments. He never reverted, always continued to search for new colour combinations that would call images and emotions in his mind without the necessity of subjects. Abstract art became the greatest expression of the twentieth century.

It is amazing but probably quite natural to understand that the search for the power of colour and pure form was made by a man who believed in spiritism, a man who was a medium. Kupka must have had perceptions more finely tuned than ordinary people. He must have had a sensibility for the lines, circles and verticals, patches of juxtaposed pure colour areas that are extraordinary. Kupka had an intense spiritual life. A spiritual movement called ‘Theosophism’ Z1 also influenced him. More remarkable even, is the fact that the four great pioneers of abstract art: Kandinsky, Malevich, Kupka and Mondriaan were influenced to more or less extent by their search for more spirituality G29 .

Malevich, the first, seems to have been influenced by the hyperspace and Fourth Dimension theories of a Russian philosopher Peter Demianovich Ouspensky G29 . The philosopher Ouspensky was a disciple of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, originally an Armenian Greek who had founded a quasi-religious movement before the Russian Revolution of 1917 in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, that later would move to France.

The Fourth Dimension was the spiritual world. There is a marvellous painting by Salvador Dali called ‘Cube Hypercube’ that illustrates the thought. A Christ is shown against a background of six cubes. When one unfolds a cube one has six two-dimensional surfaces. When one unfolds a four-dimensional cube, an object that a human mind cannot represent, one gets six tree-dimensional cubes. In the same way, Christ is the unfolding representation of the four-dimensional concept of a God. Dali brought figurative Catholic thought and abstract spiritual influences together. There existed at the beginning of the twentieth century a whole literature on the theme of the Fourth Dimension, among which the book of Gaston de Pawlowski ‘Voyage dans la Quatrième Dimension’.

Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondriaan knew the Theosophist theories and more or less were even actively engaged in the Theosophist community G29 . Although Theosophy is a very old religious philosophy that had many manifestations in various religions, it received much renown at the end of the nineteenth century by the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875 by the Russian émigré Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Helena Blavatsky, a Ukrainian of nobility, had travelled through Europe and applied occultism and spiritism before arriving in the United States where she founded the named society together with an American lawyer, Henry Steel Olcott. Blavatsky, like Kupka, seemed to have had extraordinary psychic powers. Blavatsky and Olcott moved to India, near Chennai, Madras, in 1878, to establish the headquarters of the society there. They edited a journal in India and remained there till their death. They left the American Society without the presence of a spiritual leader so that the movement there disappeared. A modified form of the sect continued to have followers in Germany, centred on the figure of Rudolf Steiner.

Sections and schools of Theosophy lived on in the main cities of Europe and India. The movement was later revived in the United States. Separate sections were founded by William Judge, an American mystic, then by Katherine Tingley. After the deaths of Blavatsky and Olcott an Englishwoman Annie Besant continued the society in India. The movement of these leaders exerted its influence until the 1930s. The Theosophical Society was emphasising universal concepts of God, nature and humanity and was dedicated to the comparative studies of religion, philosophy and science. The Theosophists claimed that unexplained laws of nature and potent powers were hidden in human beings, which could be reached by certain practices of meditation and spiritism. Knowledge of divine wisdom could thus open mysteries of the true spiritual human kind.

Theosophism with its search for spirituality without distinction of race or traditional religion struck a deep chord in Frantisek Kupka and in Piet Mondriaan, who both were one-time members of the society. The Theosophists also believed strongly in symbolism and in the mystical value of colour and form. Kupka and Mondriaan thought likewise that the higher spiritual realm could be reached through art. Mondriaan may have joined the Theosophical Society in 1909. Kandinsky had similar ideas and was influenced by Theosophist ideology.

The early abstract painters were all intelligent men who felt the need to explain their ideas. Kandinsky wrote a book in 1926 ‘Uber das Geistige in der Kunst’ or ‘On the Spiritual in Art’ in which he explained his feeling for inner harmony that sought expression in art. Mondriaan did the same in 1919 with ‘Natural reality and Abstract reality’. Malevich, who like Blavatsky was an Ukrainian by birth (he was born in Kiev), wrote ‘Der Gegenstandslose Welt’ or ‘The non-objective world’ in 1926. Before that he had already written ‘From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism’ in 1916. Frantisek Kupka also wrote a book in French, earlier than these, around 1914, but that was only published around 1920, with the title ‘La création dans les arts plastiques’ or ‘The Creation in plastic Arts’. So these painters absolutely had the need to justify their art, and they were all not just artists but also art ideologists.

Frantisek Kupka was one of the very first pioneers of abstract art. He was not a popular personality who sought glamour and fame. He was always considered a stranger in Paris, only partly understood and never brought to the front lights. In 1914 he volunteered in the French army together with a friend, the Czech sculptor Otto Gutfreund Z1 . He fought in World War I on the Somme River with the poet Blaise Cendrars, though frail and sick. His wife Nini had to go to work in a factory during the war, since the family had no money. Kupka helped to found Czech regiments that fought on the side of the Allies Z1 . At the end of the war he returned as a captain to Paris. He continued to live in the town of Puteaux.

Kupka finally met a Czech industrialist, Jindrich Waldes, who would become his friend and who tried to support him with funds, by selling Kupka’s paintings for him. In 1922 after visits to Prague, the Prague Academy accepted to pay Kupka as a visiting professor who could teach Czech students in Paris Z1 . His wife Nini organised an exhibition in 1924 in the Boétie Gallery that gave him some fame in Paris. In 1926 Kupka received the Cross of the French Légion d’Honneur Z1 . But Kupka, contrary to Chagall for instance, was not the character who could become admired in the cultural circles of Paris. When the Prague Academy stopped its payments in 1928, Kupka sank away in depressions. He had no steadfast income anymore. His wife Nini several times wanted to intern him in hospitals for the mentally ill. He left his wife several times; he suffered paranoia, but always returned to her. Waldes arranged for him twice to rest in Corsica, but the depressions continued and Kupka became more and more a recluse.

In 1935, recognition from out of the United States, especially the Museum of Modern Art of New York, gave him new courage. The director of that museum called Kupka the first European abstract painter Z1 . But from 1936 to 1945 Kupka passed several illnesses, remained some time in hospital and lived almost forgotten in Puteaux in France. After the war however, he participated in several major exhibitions in Paris, Prague, New York and he became more known again.

Kupka died in Puteaux in 1957 at the age of 86 years. Although frail and sick from around 1918, Kupka belonged to those giants of art who lived till a very old age.

Why was abstract art born in the beginning of the twentieth century? As we already noted, the major abstract painters were in search for a new spiritualism. That was probably because by that time the main spiritual force of Christianism had lost much of its power. Its substance and justification was brought into question by the new sciences and philosophies that emerged fully at that moment. Karl Marx, Johann Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and many others had shattered previous beliefs or at the least destabilised basic religious beliefs. The hold of the religious orders on education and society had been broken. Yet, it seemed impossible for people to live without spirituality.

A person builds around him a cocoon of beliefs and certainties that are his view of the world. This cocoon is his or her protection from becoming mad, it is his or her stability in life. When such a cocoon is attacked, shattered, the person is in a state of panic, which can lead either to the formation of a new modified cocoon, or to ultimate depression and suicide. Something of this happened to Kupka. He was at some times totally uncertain of his capabilities; he had not found recognition.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, intellectuals and artists had lost comfort in the cocoon of Christianity. They were in search for a new cocoon. Scientists and philosophers did maybe not really need spiritual beliefs, but artists with their enhanced sensibility and frailty certainly did.

The artists sought a new cocoon, a new framework of beliefs. They found it or thought they could find it in all sorts of mystical theories. One artist frantically would adopt one theory, such as maybe a theory on the mystical signification of symbols, such as Mondriaan’s thoughts of the mystical qualities of verticals and horizontals. Another artist would believe in a superhuman existence in the fourth dimension (in fact it should have been the fifth, time already is a fourth dimension as Einstein would show). Still another would become a member of the Theosophical sect. Each theory would be a possible explanation of the world, replacing the old Christian framework, and provide a new anchor for living and believing. Lounacharsky and the Russian Bolsheviks could support Suprematism because it was a replacement for the old Christian art.

This may all seem inadequate to us now, and all in vein, as explanations of the invisible, transcendental spirituality. But it provides a plausible explanation for the search for profound spirituality also in the pictorial arts. Art could reflect higher realities, lead to immediate glimpses of our soul, to some understanding of the processes of our mind, as also the Surrealists would try to find. This was what Frantisek Kupka also was searching over and over again and how abstract art was founded.

The awareness of the process can come as a shock to us. We believe abstract art to be a result of the cool decorative tendencies of our very materialistic world, epitomised by North American society. But on the contrary, abstract art was born out of pure search for spiritualism, interior emotions, mostly in the Eastern Europe that was after World War II a challenge to the Western world. Kandinsky, Malevich, Larionov, Gontcharova, Tatlin were Russians and so was Marc Chagall. Kupka and Mucha were Czech, Moholi-Nagy and Vasarely were Hungarians. Of course there were more names in France, Holland, Italy and later the United States. Especially the French couple Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Marcel Duchamp have to be cited, together with the Dutch Mondriaan and Van Doesburg. But the pioneers were Russians, Czechs, and Poles. Guillaume Apollinaire, who branded the names ‘Surrealists’ and ‘Orphists’, was of Polish descent.

With the spiritual foundation of abstract art the circle was closed again. Kupka, Malevich, Mondriaan, Kandinsky joined in their search the early spiritualists Giotto, Cimabue, Duccio, Fra Angelico, Van Eyck. Like the medieval painters they relied on the spiritual signification of symbols. They were trying to express emotions directly. They were sincere searchers for the human soul. They tried to probe the soul. Abstract art petered out and lost much of its original justification when there was no spiritual search anymore, when only decoration and rapid effect remained.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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