New York

Frantisek Kupka

Denise René Gallery

In the retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum and the concurrent exhibition of drawings at Denise Rene, graphic work emerges as an important element in Czech-born French émigré pioneer abstractionist Frantisek Kupka’s oeuvre. Throughout most of his career he partially supported himself through realistic black and white book illustration in the Viennese Secessionist style. These illustrations, plus studies for his early figurative paintings, are seen only at the Guggenheim.

In the early years of the 20th century he made an extensive series of drawings for his first abstract paintings—The Fugues and Amorphas. The drawings, and by extension the paintings, begin as abstractions from nature and were Kupka’s attempt to fuse his practical and sensual knowledge of figures in motion. There are several sources for his interest in moving bodies. He was interested in science and read extensively the popular scientific literature on new discoveries in astronomy. His interest in Marey’s chrono-photographs of figures in motion was so great that he even went so far as to have himself photographed running nude in his garden. Near his studio on the Right Bank in Paris were shown several versions of early movies—the nested cylinders of the praxinoscope and the optical theater. In his own work there was also a group of increasingly abstract drawings of his daughter holding a ball in her arms, in which the ball and the arms are abstracted into inter-revolving arcs. This concern with rhythmic motion also appears in his black and white studies of interlocking disks which were incorporated in his paintings, The Disks of Newton.

Another set of drawings of planes suspended or intersecting in space in tones of gray, black and white are studies for his geometric abstractions variously called The Cathedral or Vertical Planes. The earlier serpentines and arabesques, with their suggestion of dance movement and Art Nouveau voluptuousness, are renounced for the articulation of planes in space. Kupka said of his use of rectilinear components: “. . . a vertical line is like a man standing erect, where the above and below; top and bottom are suspended and, since they stretch from one to another, they are united, identical, one.” He concludes, “Profound and silent, a vertical plane helps the whole concept of space to emerge.” Some of the drawings, which, even more than the paintings, resemble and pre-date Malevich’s Suprematist Compositions, are products of two different types of experiences of architecture. On one hand, they owe an obvious debt to the abstract geometric architecture of Josef Hoffman, who exhibited an entire room in this style, an environment constructed from overlapping vertical planes, in the Viennese section of the Paris World’s Fair of 1900.

Kupka compared architecture to music writing: “They both draw their expressive forms from excitement and thoughts which they develop in abstraction . . . both architecture and music are superior because they are able to express the inexpressible, to which we are sensitive.” He was also interested in the effect of “vertiginous musicality” produced by the passage of light through stained-glass windows. He installed two stained-glass windows in his house and made it a regular practice to take his students to study the windows of Notre Dame and Chartres.

Around 1920 Kupka developed an autonomous black and white style of pleated planes partially drawn from an organic imagery of biological growth patterns and partially from Czech folk decoration. He exhibited these works at the Galerie Povolozky in 1921. He may have been encouraged to work in this manner because of his friendship with the master wood-block printer and painter A. P. Gallien, who had been working in black and white since 1920.

How does Kupka’s graphic work compare with his painting? Most of Kupka’s paintings are, to a certain extent, expressions of the 19th century’s ideas of the Gesamtkunstwerk or total art work in which, whether it be literature, painting or theater, the artist tries to suggest the synthesis of various types of sensory experience. In his paintings, there is a covalence between a diagrammatic rendering of motion/forms in space and color, and the two are brought together with color serving as the carrier of a mystical content which is the core of Kupka’s thrust toward abstraction. Many of the works exhibited at Denise René are studies, often rudimentary sketches, and although preparatory drawings, they are interesting when considered in conjunction with their paintings. They are seldom adequate alone. Two notable exceptions, however, are the post-1920 gouaches conceived as complete works in themselves, and some of the studies of lines and planes in space, an extremely pure form of abstraction since they do not bear the burden of the romantic/symbolist content of his paintings.

Ann-Sargent Wooster