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Abstraction and the Organization of Images: František Kupka and the Organization of

Graphic Motifs

Hope A Olson
School of Information Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
holson@uwm.edu

František Kupka (1871-1957) was a Czech painter who spent most of his career in
France. Kupka has been described as one of the fathers of abstract art, along with
Kandinsky and Mondrian (Railing, 2003/2004).1 Through his understanding of
representation and the notion of abstraction, he also has a contribution to make to
knowledge organization. His paintings, in all of their abstraction, may be described as
surrogates for natural reality in the form of a new reality.

I was introduced to the work of František Kupka when, at a knowledge organization


conference in Washington, DC some years ago, I visited the National Gallery of Art
and, rounding a corner, was confronted by his roughly six-by-six foot painting
Organization of Graphic Motifs II. The painting, along with its earlier and later
variants, epitomizes Kupka’s interpretation of how images are organized in the
creation of art. This paper lays open Kupka’s philosophy of art as it parallels and
potentially informs the organization of knowledge, with the Organization of Graphic
Motifs cluster of works as an example.

Classification as Art/Art as Classification

The fundamentals of Kupka’s approach stem from the idea that to create great art the
artist gathers mental images from the surrounding world and reworks them into a
coherent creation that then engages the viewer (Kupka, 1923, p. 147). Kupka
described his ideas in a book called La Création dans les arts plastiques first
published in Czech as Tvoření v Umění Výtvarném.2 He envisioned the artist drawing
mental lines between the fragments of these images to create a whole. These lines are
1
Kupka’s life and his character were a combination of disparate elements. During an apparently
unhappy childhood in a poor area of Bohemia, Kupka was apprenticed to a saddler who promoted
Kupka's abilities as a spirit medium, a profession he fell back on in hard times. Kupka's first studies in
art were influenced by Czech folk art and the Nazarene school, which he studied at the Prague
Academy. Later, in Vienna, he not only studied art but also encountered theosophy. He arrived in Paris
in 1896, settling in its suburbs in 1906 and becoming a part of the French arts scene. He was an
organizer for the Czech resistance in Paris during the First World War and had to go into hiding during
the second, but otherwise continued a relatively quiet life of his work (Fauchereau, 1989).
2
La Création dans les arts plastiques itself, has an interesting bibliographic history of loss and
suppression. Unfortunately, he was not able to find a French publisher, but the book was translated into
Czech, with Kupka’s participation, and published in Prague as Tvoření v Umění Výtvarném in 1923.
The original French version on which the Czech version was baseed disappeared while in the
possession of the Gestapo. Other French versions were apparently kept private by Kupka’s wife after
his death. Sixty-five years after the Czech translation was published, a French version, recreated from
the Czech version, was published ( this description is from Fauchereau 1989, p. 19 andVachtová 1968,
pp. 271-272). The English version, Creation in the Plastic Arts, translated from the 1989 French
version and published in Liverpool in 1997, is unavailable due to a disagreement between the French
and English publishers. However, Patricia Railing, director of the press involved and an art historian,
has published interpretations based on the English translation (Railing, 1999/2000 and 2003/2004).
“stereoscopic bridges” crossing space (Kupka summarized by Rowell, 1975, p. 198).
In portraying these relationships, the artist creates a new reality rather than directly or
transparently representing what we conventionally think of as reality. The artist
creates what Kupka scholar Ludmilla Vachtová describes as “a plastic parallel to the
natural order” (1968, p. 141). As Kupka put it:

The art of painting basically means expressing the demand to read variously
combined graphic signs as well as light and color values. The expression of a
theme, shared visualization really is not art: it only becomes art when it attains
a subjective thing of expression which the artist usually lends to natural
phenomena. By managing to change them into that other reality, he expresses
his creative ability. This part of creativity, understood as a self-contained
whole that is conscious and developed, lets one sense that painting can be
"created" and thus can delight or move the viewer, without disturbing the
organic connection of natural phenomena (Quoted in Lamač, 1981, pp. 37-
38).

Interestingly, Ernest Cushing Richardson, in his Classification: Theoretical and


Practical, describes classification in terms strikingly similar to Kupka’s approach to
art. In discussing what things can be classified, he sees the creation of new ideas, what
Kupka would call a new reality, as the result of classification, or Art:

Ideas themselves are, therefore, of two sorts, corresponding with the two kinds
of outer things, nature and art. One kind is facing nature and the other is
facing art, but the operation with either sort is one of classification.
Classification of ideas on the one hand facing nature is knowledge, and when
carried to perfection is called science. The classification of ideas, on the other
hand, into a group which never yet has had any likeness in the outer world, but
may have, and is intended to have, is art. The true classification of the ideas of
things that have been – in short, the classification of the sciences – is simply
the order of nature paralleled. The classification into new ideas or art is by the
same token not an imitation of nature, and is endless in possible variety (1930,
p. 2).

In this sense, our classification schemes are akin to Kupka’s art: natural phenomena or
ideas resulting in something new, not some absolute reflection of reality. Richardson
offers this only as one option. Although he is also stating that a classification can,
indeed, be simply parallel to nature, Richardson is doing more than leaving the door
open for something more creative – he is defining classification as a kind of art itself.
This is a far cry from the attempts to achieve neutral tools that reflect and thus
accommodate what is. It also justifies Richardson’s development of the theory of
classification in which he first defines classification as “the putting together according
to likeness” (1930, p. 3) and then promulgates three laws of classification 1) the law
of likeness, 2) the historical law, and 3) the law of evolution (1930, pp. 6-7). In
describing the law of likeness, Richardson places limitations on classification calling
likeness the foundation of logic. Building on the law of likeness, which establishes the
notion of categories, the historical law arranges likenesses in an ordered sequence of
complexity, thus establishing a linearity of topics; and the law of evolution suggests
that survival depends on continued growth in complexity, which, in logical terms, is a
path to hierarchy. So from a position similar to Kupka’s, Richardson ends up with a
traditional structure based in logic.

Structure and Abstraction

Kupka worked through Czech folk art, the Nazarene school,3 Parisian academic art,
and illustration to a pared down abstraction with a focus on structure. Kupka came to
value structure in his links to theosophy, which viewed nature as manifested in the
beauty of geometric structures, and in his contacts with the Section d’Or4 artists who
valued composition based in the golden section of non-Euclidean geometry among
other influences. As a student at the Nazarenes, Kupka rejected the notion of art for
art's sake and believed that art needed to have an ethical aim, a mission (Mladek,
1981, p. 68). For Kupka, this meant that, while art is not a copy of nature, it must
reflect some cosmic order and, in so doing, make natural laws visible (Rowell, 1975,
p. 76). To do so, Kupka, growing out of these various influences, developed abstract
art: the removal of all that is inessential in an image and the resultant geometric
structure.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, Kupka explored vertical and diagonal
planes “to create space by dividing it” (Kupka in Vachtová, 1968, p. 112). His vertical
space was not typically classificatory in that it was not hierarchical. As Kupka began
to explore abstraction in the 1910s and following years, he worked on a series of
studies for the Organization of Graphic Motifs I and II. (for I see:
http://bp1.blogger.com/_y9JCP1wazVo/RfnoW_9UgKI/AAAAAAAADIo/ikAiPEYL
rRg/s1600-h/1980_55634_600.jpg and for II see:
http://bp1.blogger.com/_y9JCP1wazVo/RfnqJv9UgMI/AAAAAAAADI4/SaJn4IYWf
Io/s1600-h/kupka4.jpg )

The French titles are Localisations de mobiles graphiques I and II. Mladek describes
the mobiles as the outer expressions of the artist’s inner motivations or motifs-mobiles
as opposed to motifs-sujets, the subject in the perceived world (1975, p. 198).
Localisation (in English, localization) is defined as “the action of making local, fixing
in a certain place, or attaching to a certain locality; the fact of being localized” (OED
online). In this sense, these paintings clearly exemplify Kupka’s philosophy of art as
described above. It creates an order of the artist’s mental images gleaned from reality
and localizes them – places them in a structure that makes sense of them.

According to Meda Mladek (1975, pp. 44+), the development of these works began
with an academic representation of a family rising to look toward the future and
gradually stripped away the realistic “inessentials.” Another early study resembles a
street between buildings, retained in the paintings as what might be construed as
cobblestones. The paintings themselves were completed for an exhibition in 1913.
The representational central figure in Organization of Graphic Motifs I is no longer
perceptible in II as Kupka moves closer to abstraction and the “cobblestones” look

3
The Nazarenes were “a group of young, idealistic German painters of the early 19th century who
believed that art should serve a religious or moral purpose and desired to return to the spirit of the
Middle Ages” (Chilvers, 2004)
4
Section d’Or was a “group of French painters who worked in loose association between 1912 and
1914, when the First World War brought an end to their activities” (Chilvers, 2004).
more like typewriter keys. He has kept only the essentials and organized them into a
new reality.

In addition, Kupka has added the “stereoscopic bridges” which appear to have
become more important than the images themselves. Again looking at Mladek’s
summary from Kupka’s 1912-1913 manuscript:

In our inner visions, fragments of images float before our eyes. In order to
capture these fragments, we unconsciously traced lines between them and by
thus setting up a network of relationships, we arrive at a coherent whole.
These lines drawn to organize our visions are like "stereoscopic bridges" from
fragments in space. ... The lines of this network define points in space and
directions. They provide the scaffolding of the image; they captured the
rhythmic relationships between impressions. And this is the real subject of the
painter: the lyrical or tragic schema of nature poeticized or dramatized.
Details, forms, figures, objects may subsequently be added to articulate the
image further (1975, pp. 199-200).

A later painting titled Non-descriptive Space (Espace non descriptif) (http://www.art-


vertical.com/images/toilesgrand/2T_07717.jpg) was begun with the others, but
completed after Kupka developed his abstraction more fully, at which time he painted
out the center of the image.

The new reality that Kupka creates is, then, an abstraction of reality. It is a pared
down representation given a new structure. Classification is essentially the same.
Richardson sounds rather condescending when he writes that “every artistic
impression is merely a classification of presentations of likeness and unlikeness”
(1930, p. 7). He seems to be abstracting art in its broadest sense when he suggests that
“[w]hat we see in a landscape can be resolved into terms of contrast of light and
shade” (1930, p. 7). But he is saying much the same thing that Kupka is expressing.
Becoming more practical, Richardson turns to the classification of books: “[t]he main
fact about the classification of books is in brief the fact that it is an art, not science. …
The end of ends in the rules of art is to produce in concrete substance something
which never yet has been, suited to a particular purpose. … The main factor is the end
sought. The adjustment of material depends on this end” (1930, pp. 24-25).

Abstraction is a very different process from traditional classification. The latter is


based on logic, particularly on deductive logic. Abstraction is not like induction either.
It does not methodically collect everything and then draw generalizations. Rather,
abstraction as Kupka describes it begins with a selection of meaningful fragments.
The inessential is peeled away and the remaining essence of reality is structured into a
new reality. The structure is not preconceived as a hierarchy in the predetermined
structure of logic. It is developed to present a coherent representation.

In knowledge organization, we typically presume that our goal is to represent reality


as closely as possible. For Kupka, there is truth in representing a new, artist-
constructed reality. Is the notion of a different reality and a representation that
reworks reality acceptable or anathema in knowledge organization? Are artists the
only ones who can create representations in a new reality or can classificationists,
information architects, and other organizers of knowledge do so as well? Kupka’s
ideas open options for creating alternative knowledge structures – different models.

If the artist wants to be true to his model he has to betray his vision and if he wants to
adhere to his vision he has to distort his model.

-- Kupka quoted in Mladek, 1981, p. 68

The author thanks Genevieve Guran for her valuable assistance.

References:

Chilvers, Ian. (2004) Section d'Or. The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Retrieved Sept. 27,
2008 from http://www.encyclopedia.com

Fauchereau, Serge. (1989). Kupka. New York: Rizzoli.

Kupka, František. (1923). Tvoření v Umění Výtvarném. Prague: Manes.

Lamač, Miroslav. (1981.) With Kupka to “The Other Shore.” In Frank Kupka:
Ausstellung Februar-April 1981: exhibition February-April 1981 / [Redaktion
und Gestaltung, Krystyna Rubinger], pp. 34-43. Köln: Galerie Gmurzynska

Mladeck, Meda. (1975.) Catalogue of the Exhibition. In Fratišek Kupka 1871-1957:


Retrospective, pp. 81-304. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Mladeck, Meda. (1975.) Metaphysical questions. In Fratišek Kupka 1871-1957:


Retrospective, pp. 42-46. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Mladeck, Meda. (1981.) Central European influences. In Frank Kupka : Ausstellung


Februar-April 1981: exhibition February-April 1981 / [Redaktion und
Gestaltung, Krystyna Rubinger], pp. 44-83. Köln : Galerie Gmurzynska

Railing, Patricia. (1999/2000). Frank Kupka: Art and science at the sources of
creation. The Structurist, 39/40, 44-9.

Railing, Patricia. (2003/2004). An imaginary trialogue on abstract art: Kandinsky,


Kupka, and Mondrian in conversation. The Structurist, 43/44

Richardson, Ernest Cushing. (1930.) Classification: Theoretical and practical. New


York: H. W. Wilson.

Vachtová, Ludmilla. (1968.) Frank Kupka: Pioneer of abstract art. New York:
McGraw-Hill.