Monday, July 9, 2018

Kupka Retrospective @ Grand Palais

Frantisek Kupka, Plans par couleurs, grand nu, 1909-10

I had heard and read so many good things about the Kupka retrospective at the Grand Palais that I went with a lot of expectations. One thing is certain; as usual, the exhibition is extensive in its display of the reach of Kupka’s oeuvre. However, to call him a pioneer of abstraction might be overstating the innovation of what he was doing.

Frantisek Kupka, Io la Vache, 1910
Visitors will go through the exhibition recognizing Kupka’s liberal appropriation of other artists work and ideas. The influence of and similarity to paintings by everyone from Gustave Moreau through Egon Schiele, Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Theo von Doesberg and usual suspects such as Picasso are easily spotted and difficult to ignore. As my friend Dore Bowen said as we wandered from room to room and from style to style, Kupka appears to have been an artist who walked through life seeing other people’s work and saying to himself, “I can do that, let me show you.” And because of the eclecticism and constant movement of Kupka’s interests,  it’s difficult to find a consistency to his vision or a centre to his work. Put another way, the oeuvre is all over the place.
Frantisek Kupka, Plans par couleurs, 1910

That said, for me there were some impressive works, particularly, those he painted at mid-career as he moved from representation to abstraction. The very last of his representations of women’s bodies and the first pushes towards abstraction of the same women’s bodies,  before they become futurist and Kupka is overtaken by an obsession with cosmology are among his most interesting. In a work such as Plans par couleurs, grand nu, 1909-10 the body merges with the fauvist color palette in a depiction of a woman in which the focus is shape, form, volume, and absence of perspective. In another exquisite image, Io la Vache, 1910,  a thick, modulated background becomes the negative space of the woman’s body, the two strokes of red to depict her sumptuous lips, and a blue clasp in her hair create the perfect costume for a performer. In a sketch-like painting, the few lines depict an enormously complex understanding of the distinction between background and foreground, the negative and positive spaces of the canvas, and the consequent flattening out of the image. In addition, he is able to incorporate the significance of this and other women as no more than an image, posing to be looked at, just like the paintings in which they appear. These relatively early works seem to be more experimental and more masterly than many of the later pieces.  
Frantisek Kupka, La beigneuse, 1906-1910

Another image that I fell in love with was an early gouache of a woman riding a horse in an arena that poses all sorts of questions. First, it is impossible to tell if the walls of the arena are indeed walls with images painted on them, or if they are they glass windows giving out onto a scene in which horses are show jumping, or in a third possibility, are they mirror images of the scene we see in the arena? Kupka will take up this question of the status of the image in its play with mirrors again, particularly in the transition period I mention above. We see the merging of the image depicted, those of its reflections and the one we are looking at again in an ink on paper in which the incomplete images of men on horses in Les Cavaliers, 1902-1903 could be riding through a funhouse hall of mirrors. Again, in other paintings from the same period, shattered images of women’s bodies verging into colours depicting form and movement such that the body or the shape of the body disappears. A similar principle is seen in his famous painting, La Baigneuse, 1906-1909.

Frantisek Kupka, Les Cavaliers, 1902-03

Of course, viewers will look at these vibrating, ricocheting multiplications of the body and be reminded of Woman Descending a Staircase. Like Duchamp’s famous example, Kupka removes the single perspective and emphasizes multiple perspectives of representation. However, Kupka’s paintings also strike me as doing something different through the gradual removal of the woman’s body. The body fades, or dissolves as much as it vibrates in motion across an image. It is as though the figure is leaving the canvas to make way for the abstraction to come. Duchamp’s woman however, has already lost her human-ness and her figurality.

As a result, it is also worth noting that even though Kupka paints the woman’s body over and over again, thus, it is his greatest inspiration particularly prior to World War I, the paintings don’t have a quality of obsession or desire. The female form and its performance for a spectator is more like a trope through which he explores the concerns of representation. Perhaps others will find different moments of interest in the exhibition, but for me, the pre-World War I years when the direction of painting was still under a question mark, are Kupka’s finest contributions to abstraction.

All images courtesy La Grande Palais 

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