František Kupka 1871—1957

Black Idol 1901

Charcoal, gouache, handmade paper with watermark, 490 × 425 mm
Signed “Kupka” at bottom right.

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The Resistance – Black Idol drawing is a variation on of one of four prints from Kupka’s famous series The Way of Silence. The title of the series itself is a reference to The Voice of the Silence (1889), a treatise by theosophist Helena P. Blavatsky. The series of images constitutes something of a visual memento of a modern-day seeker intent of rediscovering the great cultures of antiquity and the laws of the universe. The Black Idol was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's 1844 poem “Dream-Land” about a pilgrim wandering an obscure and secluded landscape “where an Eidolon, named Night, on a black throne reigns upright”. In a wilderness of “lone waters, lone and dead”, the traveller finds the “sheeted memories of the past”. The scene is dominated by the colossal figure of a sphinx-headed king. The Greek word Eidolon refers to an image, idol, revelation or phantom; in theosophy, it represents the astral look-alike of the human form.

František Kupka, Resistance – Black Idol, 1903, coloured etching with aquatint.

About the artist

Following his studies at fine arts academies in Prague and Vienna, František Kupka launched his Paris career in 1896 as a skilled fashion magazine illustrator. However, as a result of his growing affinity towards the anarchist movement, by the turn of the century he was producing drawings which were largely political and satirical in nature. While three of his series (Money, Religion and Peace), created for the satirical magazine LAssiette au beurre between 1901 and 1904, reached international critical acclaim, he also contributed to other periodicals, including the humour magazine Le Rire, the anarchist newspaper Les Temps nouveaux, the pictorial revue LIllustration, the Art Nouveau journal Cocorico and the satirical weekly Le Canard sauvage. Simultaneously, since approximately 1899, he began to publish his socio-critical and esoteric prints including e.g. The Fools, Resistance – Black Idol and The Way of Silence, which reflected his anarchistic political convictions and spiritist experiments (and incidentally brought him close to Alfons Mucha). In 1904–1905, he illustrated the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus’ LHomme et la Terre (The Earth and its Inhabitants), a masterwork presenting the author's notions and deep knowledge of the physical and spiritual principles of the creation, composition and existence of the universe and of mankind, interwoven in an abstract manner which brought him very close to reflections on the nature of abstraction itself. Although he initially resisted the term abstraction, around 1910 Kupka concluded that an artist as creator in fact shares much with the hypothetical Creator himself: he stands before a blank canvas, filling it with random as well as causative elements – coloured points, planes or other forms – whose interplay produces associations and emotions, i.e. utilizes a similar principle as the creation of the world itself or the creation of music in a world of sound. Orphism, the term coined by Apollinaire for this particular kind of abstract reasoning, differed significantly from the concept of abstraction as derived from analytical cubism; in fact, it was its very opposite: a synthetic concept, true artistic creation, as contemplated by Kupka and his friends from the Puteaux Group. At the Paris Autumn Salon of 1912, Kupka was one of the first painters to exhibit purely abstract pieces, including Amorpha Fugue in Two Colours and Warm Chromatics. Although his works were met with more or less negative critical reception, as is usually the case in similar instances, Kupka was not discouraged from further developing his abstract thinking. While he was not initially considered a pioneering figure of abstraction, he did achieve some recognition among French and international gallery owners of the interwar period, e.g. due to his membership in the Abstraction – Création international association of artists and thanks to several exhibitions featuring purely abstract variations and painting series (his first solo exhibition was held at the Povolozki Gallery at 13, rue Bonaparte in 1922, his last before the war was a joint exhibition with Alfons Mucha at the Jeu de Paume in 1937). Kupka did not live to see his first great postwar retrospective at the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris in 1958; he died in Puteaux on 24 June 1957. Kupka is widely recognized as one of the three key founders of the international abstract art movement. He is also the best known – and most expensive – Czech painter in history.

Exhibition history

František Kupka 1871–1957, National Gallery in Prague, 7. 9. – 20. 1. 2019.

Sen ve snu: Edgar Allan Poe a umění v českých zemích, National Gallery in Prague, 4. 3. 2019 – 22. 11. 2020.


Anna Pravdová, Markéta Theinhardt, eds., František Kupka 1871–1957. Národní galerie Praha in collaboration with Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais a Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, 2018, repro p. 19.


Dr. Pavel Hess of Mariánské Lázně, private collection, Paris.