Czech painter and graphic artist, born in 1871 at Dobruska, Bohemia, died in 1957. Kupka studied at the School of Fine Arts in Prague. To support himself, he gave lessons in religion and worked as a medium at spiritual séances. He was immersed in the thought of the French eighteenth century, and so was overwhelmed by an exhibition of the Impressionists in a Prague gallery. In 1991 he studied in Vienna and, in 1895, in Paris, where he has lived ever since. He studied from Nature and greatly admired Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec. He undertook some important illustrative work: Lysistrata, Prometheus of Aeschylus and Les Erinnyes of Leconte de Lisle. He learnt Hebrew when commissioned by Élie Faure to make drawings for a new translation of the Song of Songs. His studio had the calm atmosphere of a religious workshop. From 1906 on his painting changed profoundly; his technical development served in imagination which saw beyond appearances. In his landscapes Kupka sought the distortions of bodies in water and expressed them in cold, strident colours.
He gave them a life of their own, independent of the subject and freed of the demands of realty. In a portrait of 1907 a yellow tone dominates the expression and even the features. The large Nude painted in 1901 and exhibited in the Salon d'Automne of 1910 marks a decisive stage: the body is cut up into severely constructed and brightly coloured zones of purple, orange, yellow, rose and dark green. A bridge had been thrown between a methodical Fauvism and a Cubism which was soon to rediscover the use of colour. A portrait of Kupka's wife is invaded by lines and only the face survives among the clean-cut verticals and diagonals. But this rather hybrid combination of contrasting elements is soon left behind and in interest in construction predominates: the image springs up amid the interplay of complementary planes, as if through a series of screens. In 1911-1912 Kupka painted the first totally abstract work: Fugue in Red and Blue, in which concentric rhythms in blue, red, green and black are ranged on a white ground. He superimposed coloured masses, chromatic blocks which seem to emerge from one another (as in Vertical Planes, 1913), and from which shoot out isolated lines which sometimes recall graphic motiffs.
Kupka joined with his neighbour Jacques Villon in the meetings of the Section d'Or, in which a whole group of young Cubists were seeking the ideal proportions of a new painting. He was mentioned by Apollinaire as being among the Orphist painters and the creators of the art of the future. In 1913 the New York Times devoted an article to him in which he was quoted as saying: 'To people who claim that one cannot create forms or colours, I will reply that man has created the Ionic column and the Doric column and that architecture has constantly created forms with well-proportioned and fully justified modifications. . . . Man expresses his thoughts in words . . . Why not create in painting and sculpture, independently of the forms and colours which surround him?' A little later, in the preface to an album of abstract woodcuts, he wrote: 'The work of art, being in itself abstract reality, needs to be made up of invented elements'.
During the 1914-1918 war Kupka joined an infantry company before becoming an officer in the Czech Legion. Kupka volunteered for military service and fought on the Somme; he also did a good deal of propaganda work such as designing posters and was discharged with the rank of captain in 1919. The French poet Blaise Cendrars, his comrade in battle, has described their experiences in La Main Coupée. After the war Kupka continued his experiments, his expeditions to the extreme limits of knowledge. In 1924 he exhibited his Diagrams and Whirling Arabesques. But his contemporaries did not appreciate him, and this pioneer of non-objective art saw himself almost ignored. Uncompromisingly, he continued with his work and attained a purity and balance which evoke a sort of philosophical architecture. In 1936, in a large exhibition at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris, he arranged a vast panorama of his creations, in five sections: Circulars, Verticals, Verticals and Diagonals, Triangulars, Diagonals. But it was not until after the recent war that his work received the recognition it merits: first in Czechoslovakia, where an important retrospective exhibition was organized in 1946 for his seventy-fifth birthday, and from which fifty pictures were bought to form a Kupka Museum; then in Paris and New York, where it was recognized, because of its unity and logical development, as one of the key sources of abstract art. The re-evaluation of his career began with an exhibition of his work at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, in 1958, a year after his death.