“[C]olor exists only through other colors. This is the basis for all color theories.”
Shortly before he died in 1957, František Kupka sold Mme Kupka among Verticals, a work he had stored in his studio for nearly 45 years after its completion in 1910–11, to The Museum of Modern Art. In this oil painting, dynamic, fractured strokes of color surround the face of Eugénie Straub Broad, the artist's wife and muse. Eugénie’s delicate features—her tilted chin, slightly parted lips, and closed eyes—emerge from these irregular, choppy vertical brushstrokes. Reusing an unfinished portrait of his wife, made years earlier when he was working in a Symbolist vein, Kupka transformed her likeness into something barely figural. The result, like many of his important paintings and works on paper, plays between abstraction and portraiture. He would soon tip the balance toward total abstraction, becoming one of the earliest artists to do so.
The oldest of five children, Kupka was born in Opočno, a small town in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic). As a young teen he worked for a saddle maker who introduced him to spiritualism and ideas about the cosmos, concepts he would later draw upon in early drawings and paintings that explored the relationship between religion, color, and geometry. Following his training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, and later at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Kupka moved to Paris in 1896. Inspired by the Neo-Impressionist and Fauvist paintings he saw in Paris exhibitions, he began experimenting with different styles, all while supporting himself as a caricaturist for satirical magazines.
By the end of the decade, Kupka had begun studying the association between shape and color, initially through the verticals in Mme Kupka among Verticals and The Musician Follot (c. 1911, dated 1910), and later culminating in his landmark painting Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors, which was exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in 1912. This canvas, now in the collection of the Prague National Gallery, was one of the first abstract paintings shown in Paris. Thirty-nine of Kupka’s circular studies for this painting are in MoMA’s collection. Each of these fully abstract drawings demonstrates the artist’s intense, iterative experimentation with the motif as he progressed towards the completed work. They stand as some of the earliest examples of abstraction, testing the effects of a limited color palette and disregarding conventional perspective to suggest movement in the swirling, circular forms.
For MoMA’s 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., included two Kupka paintings from 1912–13 (Disks of Newton and Vertical Planes) and Elementary Toy (1931) next to Robert Delaunay's Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon (1913). The Museum acquired its first Kupka painting in 1951, Red and Blue Disks (1911–12). Before his death, the artist and his wife gave MoMA nearly 500 early gouache, watercolor, and pencil studies in which he continued to push the boundaries of nonrepresentational art. Barr’s decision to include Kupka in MoMA’s exhibition of abstraction and Cubism, which Barr called “a historical survey of an important movement in modern art,” was early recognition of Kupka’s significance within the history of modernism.
Note: Opening quote is from František Kupka. La création dans les arts plastiques (Paris: Cercle d’art, 1989), p. 139, 141, quoted and cited in Anděl, Jaroslav, Dorothy M. Kosinski, Jaroslav. Anděl, and František Kupka. Painting the Universe, František Kupka : Pioneer in Abstraction (Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1997), 76.
Emily Cushman, Collection Specialist, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016