František Kupka: The Medium is the Messenger

František Kupka, The Beginning of Life, 1900. Source.

I’ve long been an admirer of František Kupka, Symbolist painter and pioneering abstract artist. But it was when I read that he’d been a medium that I knew I had to write about him.

František Kupka, The Way of Silence, 1903. Source.

Although a skeptic, I’m still intrigued by people who sincerely believe they can communicate with forces from "The Great Beyond," as Gauguin called it. Perhaps it’s in the genes. My grandmother used to take my father to seances in the 1930s, when spiritualism was very in vogue in England.

František Kupka, The First Step, 1909. Source.

Although as an adult my father dismissed such doings as hogwash, I believe our shared love of classic horror and science fiction films arose from a fascination with the supernatural, and perhaps a faint wish that we, too, could believe. I was raised an atheist, which makes it difficult to believe in the unexplained, even when one really wants to.

František Kupka, Admiration, c. 1899. Source.

Kupka, born in Bohemia in 1871, was apprenticed as a youth to a saddle maker, who apparently introduced him to spiritualism. Several biographies describe Kupka as supporting himself as a medium, and certainly the works of his Symbolist period reveal a highly imaginative mind at work.

František Kupka, Resistance, or The Black Idol, 1903. Coloured aquatint on paper.

from Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola (or his art director) was clearly impressed with Kupka’s The Black Idol of 1903, as it seems to have been the inspiration for the castle in Coppola's film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. 

František Kupka, Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs, 1912. Source.

Like many avant-garde artists of this period, Kupka was attracted to Eastern philosophy and Theosophy, a mystical spirituality that embraced (among other things) the idea of thoughts as having specific shapes and colours. This may be what pushed Kupka towards non-objectivity. 

František Kupka, Disks of Newton, (Study for "Fugue in Two Colors")1911. Source.

Along with French artists Robert and Sonia Terk Delauney, Kupka was associated Orphism, a seminal abstract movement whose name was coined by poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in allusion to an ancient Greek mystery religion.  Orphism combined the fractured planes of Cubism, the dynamism of Futurism, the brllliant colours of the Fauves, and the latest in colour theory science, a potent mix that produced some masterpieces of early abstraction. 

František Kupka, Autour d'un point, c. 1911-1930. Source.

Kupka's take on abstraction also reflected his interests in astronomy, cosmology and the Theosophist view of the connections between visual art and music. "I can produce a fugue in colors as Bach has done in music," said Kupka, who made the reference to music explicit by including the term "fugue" in many titles (fellow abstraction pioneer and Theosophy keener Vassily Kandinsky was on the same page in using the terms "improvisation" and "composition" in his titles.)

František Kupka, Form of Blue, 1925 (left); Lawren Harris, Mountain Experience, c.1936 (right)

It’s interesting to compare Kupka's work to the later work of Canadian Lawren Harris, another Theosophist who also moved from representation to abstraction, which he came to believe could more effectively express the spiritual realm.

František Kupka, The Yellow Scale, 1907. Source.

Whether Kupka believed his mediumistic talents gave him special access to The Great Beyond I've yet to discover. What is certain is that his questing spirit and independent frame of mind brought him to abstraction at a time when the idea of painting non-referentially was still very new.