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Czech artist In Search Of a New Reality

Color and movement - vibrating, oscillating, interpenetrating - dissolve the objective world in the work of painter Frantisek Kupka, who in 1912 gave Paris its first look at abstract art

WRITERS about the Czech painter Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) like to emphasize that he was a ``solitary'' artist. He certainly followed his own line, producing works of forceful originality, as a recent, splendid exhibition of his art at the Mus'ee d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris bore witness. He reportedly spent most of his time alone in his studio. But there is a paradox. Here was an artist, born in Eastern Bohemia, who made a bee-line (via Prague and Vienna), as soon as he could, to what was then the center of the art world, Paris. He was to remain there, with few breaks, from 1894 for the rest of his life.

Here was an artist whose thrusting, inventive development took him from turn-of-the-century symbolism and satirical book illustration into experimental realms of abstraction - into painting in search of ``another reality'' by means of color, form, space, line.

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If such an evolution was always on his own terms, he still cannot be called simply a visionary, unaware of what was happening all around him. He definitely went to exhibitions. And on the evidence of his works alone, he was acutely conscious of the work of many other artists - Matisse's ``Fauvism,'' for example, Delaunay's ``Orphism,'' the ``Futurism'' of the Italians, Duchamp's ``Nude Descending a Staircase.''

Whatever form his work took, Kupka always explored it with deeply felt and considered inventiveness. He always painted with striking confidence, but this did not lead him to triteness of touch. An artist of considerable variety but a determined, overall logic of development, he seems to have found an effective balance between his own private language and concerns and the dynamic demands and changes of the 20th century.

Although Kupka was possibly the first to show truly abstract works (in 1912) to the Parisian public - thereby arousing a storm of chauvinistic indignation - this was exactly the time that Kandinsky also made his first abstract works. Later, in the 1930s, Kupka was to make a number of paintings exploring abstract geometries composed of simplified bands of color in the spirit of Van Doesburg and Mondrian. In this, too, he was far from alone.

He was also early fascinated by the possibilities for artists opened up by the developments in science, particularly the way X-rays revealed things previously invisible.

But he was also a complex artist, fascinated by such esoteric beliefs as spiritualism, occultism, and (like Mondrian) theosophy. The sacred and the profane mingled in his art. While he had an extraordinary sense of light, in all the subtleties and marvels of the spectrum, something of the ``primeval chaos'' - a dark, unformed, material universe as the imagined fertile ground of creativity - never really leaves his work, from the symbolist 1890s on.

His work was produced in investigative batches of like-minded paintings and then, often years later, re-worked or re-touched. By turns it can seem inspired or sensualistic - exalted into realms of spiraling arabesque and motion like a music of pure color and form, or biological, earthy, even erotic.

The recent exhibition in Paris - and we are promised a different version in the not-too-distant future at the National Gallery in Prague, which owns a fine array of Kupka's works - divided him up not so much chronologically as by theme.

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There was a section for his symbolist works - exotic, literary, and somewhat Oriental in bent. Already he is cosmic in the scale of his vision and potently mystical in atmosphere - yet a conventional artist stylistically. In the early 1900s he found one means of financial support by making satirical drawings for an anarchist publication where, using academic draftsmanship.

His breakthrough to abstraction was, like Kandinsky's and Mondrian's, a logical progress from the naturalistic - from paintings of figures and landscape - into the dominance of form and color over depiction.

Music helped: The picture ``Les Touches de piano Le Lac'' (1909) shows the black and white keys of a piano rising vertically up the picture plane and mingling with the water of the lake, the reflections, the tree-trunks - everything enveloped in a dream-like twilight.

The invasion of the visual by sound-movement is like work by the Italian Futurists Giacomo Balla and Carlo Carr`a - and Kupka doubtless was well aware of their paintings.

Whatever he did, it was with mastery and a subjective conviction. A group of works can be placed under the banner of ``Fauvism'' because of their strong contrasts of complementary color used to describe figures, particularly nudes. But his Fauvism - luminous and brilliant as it is - actually is more considered, less ``wild'' and intuitive, than Matisse's or Derain's.

Eventually he finds himself. Color and movement - vibrating, oscillating, interpenetrating - dissolve the objective world, and great rhythms of prismatic forms transform his canvases into dynamic scenarios with their own spaces, their own vitality and subjectiveness. But Kupka is still never far from nature in such paintings: Flowers, clouds, figures in movement, and then stars and moons and suns in their trajectories make up the stuff of his most original abstraction.

Running parallel to these bursting dramas - plunging into deep spaces, curving, surging, baroque - are works in which he explores the stricter, less spatial character of verticality and the diagonal. In these he comes close to a faceted, cubistic picture-space. But unlike the Cubists, he is not representing anything.

Another group of works, from the '20s, takes its inspiration for the first time in his oeuvre from machines, their rhythms, wheels, levers, and cogs; it is apparent that Kupka found in such mechanisms an equivalent to the syncopations of jazz.

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