Kupka: Pionnier de l'abstraction | Grand Palais

The Grand Palais’ impressive František Kupka retrospective was pretty much empty when I visited late last month. It was probably due to the show being free after 8pm to celebrate some European Union-sponsored “night of museums”. But, also, František Kupka isn’t really an A-lister for either impressionist portraiture or abstraction. Which is a shame, as his is a seriously impressive career, with all its twists and turns, not just from the figurative to the abstract, but from painting into drawings and woodblock prints - and back again.

Despite the genre-hopping, there’s a loss of energy towards the end for me, though. Kupka created an increasingly elaborate - you could say contrived - system of imagery, assigning specific characteristics to different shapes and colours. And that made his work seem increasingly constrained. For example, blue for him was suitable for rectilinear shapes, while red was to be used in blobby and amorphous shapes. Different signs were assigned to different lines: straight, curved or arabesque.

This all makes Kupka’s sudden, and brief, swerve in the late 1920s, ripping up his system and painting not quite figurative, but certainly not abstract, pictures of machinery and gramophone discs, quite shocking. (Below is an example from 1927-9: ‘Synthèse’.)

Installation view

The show notes, reverently respectful for the artist’s finickety colour and shape system, are pretty scandalised, referring to “the crisis of ‘machinism’”. The crisis was over by 1930, when, inspired by his friendship with Theo van Doesbourg, Kupka started back with lines and curves, with some derivative de Stijl paintings. The system reasserted itself. And the work died a little.

I loved the energy and dynamism of these little machines, echoing not just constructivism and the Futurists, but also more conservative figures such as Charles Sheeler, and his lovely, careful little paintings of industrial machinery and neatly-organised factories. It was a time after all in which the industrial was symbolic of hope and progress, not pollution and decline.

I’m glad I got to see Kupka’s expression of this very 20th century sentiment in such calm surroundings.

Kupka: Pionnier de l’abstraction is at the Grand Palais (Paris). 21 March - 30 July 2018.