Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) Variation et contraste (Painted circa 1932)

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Lot 32
Frantisek Kupka
(Czech, 1871-1957)
Variations et contrastes

Sold for £ 206,500 (US$ 259,969) inc. premium
Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957)
Variations et contrastes
signed 'Kupka' (lower right) and signed again indistinctly (lower centre)
oil on canvas
64.1 x 64.7cm (25 1/4 x 25 1/2in).
Painted circa 1932


  • The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Monsieur Pierre Brullé.

    The artist's studio.
    Private collection, France.
    Anon. sale, Guy Loudmer, Paris, 17 June 1996, lot 25.
    Private collection, Madrid.
    Private collection, Paris (acquired from the above).

    'The line is nothing less than one of the most essential factors in our conception of plastic forms. You compare it to the baton of the orchestra conductor, conducting the materiality of expanses...The upright vertical, like a taut cord, elegant, energetic, beyond nature, evokes the abstract world. It is absolute, planted in its own immobility. The sense of sight conceives it in its entirety, simply allowing its extension: seeing it begin with a single point, only simply registers the direction it would follow...Solemn, the vertical is the backbone of life in space, the axis of all construction; it monumentalises the slightest sketch on the pad.' (F. Kupka quoted in La creation dans les arts plastiques, Paris: Edition Cercle d'art, pp. 162, 168, 169 in J. Anděl and D. Kosinski, Painting the Universe František Kupka Pioneer in Abstraction, Bonn, 1997, p. 132).

    Czech artist František Kupka stands alongside Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Delaunay, as one of the foremost pioneers of abstract art in the early twentieth century. Having relocated to Paris in 1896 after training at the Prague and Vienna Academies, Kupka positioned himself as a leading thinker, writer and champion of non-representational painting, remaining unerring in his aim to transcend visual reality through art to convey the metaphysical truth which he perceived was at the heart of the universe.

    As with many other artists at the turn of the century, Kupka was highly influenced by the esoteric ideas of theosophy. This spiritual enquiry sought to understand or acquire direct knowledge of the cosmic principles underpinning being, nature and the universe. It offered artists a new platform for perceiving and conveying an 'essence of reality' beyond the directly visible world and a framework for expressing the 'unknown' in abstract terms. Alongside this system of esoteric philosophy, Kupka also maintained more nebulous spiritual beliefs including a keen interest in the occult sciences, mystical experiences and Eastern religions, all of which underscored his metaphysical understanding of the universe and deeply influenced his creative process.

    In accordance with theosophy's application of the natural sciences, Kupka embarked upon a detailed observation of the outside world (including a scientific study of biology), using nature as his model for understanding the universal cosmic order. Kupka's earlier forays into abstract art were inspired by the natural environment, such as the ebb and flow of the sea in the series Bleus mouvants (1922 – 1927), or vegetable growth in Conte de pistils et d'étamines (1919 – 1920). Yet, while these works are ostensibly non-objective, their formal aspects nonetheless retain references to the external phenomena which inspired them. The Bleus mouvants series is believed to have been developed from Kupka's observations of the coastline along the Mediterranean town of Estérel, and indeed, the aquatic tones and dynamic arabesques which pervade these works are immediately evocative of waves breaking at the shoreline. Similarly, the organic forms of the Conte de pistils et d'étamines series are highly reminiscent of microscopic cell structures - no doubt drawn from Kupka's biological experiments under the microscope.

    It was arguably not until later in Kupka's career, when his purely geometrical form of expression displayed no bonds whatsoever to observable nature, that he achieved the purest expression of his artistic aims. In 1931, a year before the execution of Variations et contrastes, Kupka joined the association Abstraction-Création, an international group of non-figurative artists founded on the 15th February by Théo Van Doesburg. This group was undoubtedly an important influence in the development of Kupka's practice and included many leading abstract artists of the day, such as Hans Arp, Albert Gleizes, Jean Hélion, Auguste Herbin, and Piet Mondrian (who had formerly worked closely with Van Doesburg from 1917 - 1925 in the Dutch De Stijl movement). The text that Kupka contributed to the first issue of the group's eponymous publication in 1932, offers critical insight into his conceptual thinking at the time of executing the present work. It is here that Kupka significantly seeks to renounce nature to create a truly liberated, non-objective art:

    '[...] I'm good for nothing but painting! Trying to do it without nature. Chaos. Recourse to subtractions. Abstracting also the trompe-l'oeil, the atmosphere and all lies of the third dimension. Since then I spent my time trying to prove the possibility of creating freely. Geometric planes, care for the only limits. Possibilities in the sense of painting – painting decomposed, giving the forms and the new situations....I took up again where I was in 1912, new spirit, new technique' (F. Kupka in Abstraction – Création, no. 3, Paris, 1932, p. 32.).

    Composed of overlapping blocks of primary colour, with black horizontal and vertical lines of varying thicknesses and lengths penetrating the picture plane from the outer edges, Variations et contrastes from 1932 is an emphatic example of Kupka's truly non-mimetic period. The square format of the work, with its elemental colour scheme underpinned by straight black lines is at first sight a visual echo of Mondrian's Neo-plasticism. Both artists were certainly familiar with each other's abstract experiments and conceptually aligned in their beliefs that a spiritual, cosmic order underlay the visible world. Kupka's composition however retains a conceptual authenticity which looks back to some of his earliest writings on abstract art and offers a decisively unique conceptualisation of the metaphysical truth which he saw as intrinsic to the universe.

    In 1912 - 1913 Kupka wrote 'The straight line represents the abstract world. It is absolute... the optical sense grasps it in its entirety and easily imagines its extension in space. Since the line starts from a point the eye merely records it as a direction.' (F. Kupka quoted in M. Rowell, František Kupka 1871 – 1957 A Retrospective, (exh. cat.), New York, 1975, p. 286). For Kupka, the world beyond the perceptual realm was ruled by dynamism and change and it was the artist's role to intuit its rhythms and present concrete forms where the idea was clearly visible. In Variations et contrastes, unlike Mondrian's static grid structures, Kupka does not extend his black lines throughout the composition. In this respect, movement is implied within the work whereby the lines, if extended, would intersect, thus splicing and proliferating the geometric planes of primary colour. This sense of implied movement is explicitly conveyed at the lower right of the painting, in which Kupka deliberately prevents two black lines from touching, leaving a tiny gap present within an otherwise completely demarcated geometrical structure. This visual sign presents the work as if suspended in an active process of becoming. Like the flux of nature that Kupka appreciated in the motion of the sea or the multiplication of cells at a microscopic level, Variations et contrastes offers a concrete conceptualisation of the growth and movement which Kupka perceived as inherent to the macrocosm of the universe itself.

    Technical perfection was of ultimate importance to Kupka as he sought to express his personal interpretation of this cosmic dynamism in unequivocal terms. As such, he scrutinised the configuration, function and significance of every colour, point, line and plane to ensure that the composition as a whole was an effective vehicle for universal values. Variations et contrastes, with its harmonious repetition and combination of forms, colour and line, is testament to this formal precision and an accomplished example of Kupka's understanding of Eudia. Coined from the Ancient Greek where it refers to 'measure, a sense of proportions and rhythms', the term was one that Kupka referred to throughout his career and it remained a guiding principle of his aesthetic. He first referenced the word in a sketchbook from 1910 - 1911 in which he describes it as 'the spontaneous rhythm [created] by the repetition of proportions represented by lines or planes is like an assemblage of motifs on a printed fabric. The conscious and desired rhythm, harmony Eudia of all components.' (F. Kupka quoted in ibid., p. 289).

    The harmonic counterbalancing of form and colour displayed in Variations et contrastes imbues the work with a natural sense of rhythm which is only heightened by the implied movement denoted within the composition itself. As Margrit Rowell explains 'Kupka aspired to an imagery in which a richness of sensuous presence, a clarity of structure, and rhythmic implications of dynamic change would simultaneously express the true nature of experience in both physical and metaphysical terms' (M. Rowell, ibid., p. 80). Variations et contrastes is a mature encapsulation of these aspirations and reveals the depth and solemnity of Kupka's quest to find a 'new reality' within his art.
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