n late June 1956, towards midday, after a swift flight through dry-season skies, the Czech artist Karel Kupka clambered from a prop plane at Milingimbi airstrip and stepped for the first time into the elusive world of Arnhem Land.
This arrival, which would have life-changing consequences for Kupka, and open a new chapter in Western appreciation of Aboriginal cultures, had been long dreamed of and long planned. Kupka, by then, had already lived in self-imposed exile from his own country for more than a decade. He had made himself into a virtual Frenchman, a Parisian, an aesthetic scholar. He was in pursuit of knowledge, but knowledge of a subtle, momentous kind, almost beyond the reach of words, although he spent weeks on end seeking to pin down the subject of his investigations, and years later, after protracted struggles to reduce his findings to a single statement, he would die with this formula upon his lips.
That morning, though, his quest was just beginning, he was full of intuitions and excitement, and the mood is evident in his writings from those days, which are alive with a restrained joy and a sense of impending fulfilment. Their tone may also owe something to the broken pattern of Kupka’s earlier life, to his long-frustrated artistic ambitions, to his many displacements and his constantly reviving belief that the sublime was close at hand. This trajectory of yearnings had been set since childhood.
He was born in the last year of World War I, in Prague, the capital of the newly formed Czechoslovakia, into a family with strong connections among the intelligentsia. The cubist painter Frantisek Kupka, well known in Central Europe, was a relation of his; his cousin Jiri became a prominent writer during communist times. During his schooldays Kupka was dispatched by his art-loving father on brief study trips to Paris, where he began painting in his turn and felt the first stirrings of a lifelong interest in prehistoric man. With this background, his pronounced gift for languages and his liberal education, Kupka’s path ahead in life seemed smooth; and he was already well into his studies at Charles University when, abruptly, a shadow many of his fellow-countrymen had long dreaded fell. The German army invaded and annexed Czechoslovakia; the occupiers shut down the university; there were protests, and Kupka took part; they were harshly suppressed. His father was able to find him a mid-level post at Rolnicka, an agricultural-insurance firm, where he survived the wartime years, painting, from time to time, small, sentimental landscapes of peasant huts.
It was only late in 1945, well after the liberation of Prague, that Kupka was able to devise a strategy of return to a country that had grown sweeter in his mind with each new year of absence. He enlisted in an army unit bound for Le Havre, transferred to a post in the Czechoslovak embassy in Paris, and started to live a straitened life. He began a doctorate, rather fittingly on aspects of the law of international transport; but most of his time was spent at the Ã‰cole des Beaux-Arts, where he worked in the studio of the muralist Jean Souverbie.
When Kupka turned to those days in conversations with visitors in years to come, he passed over the politics of the time and the communist takeover in Prague, which confirmed him in his choice of adopted home. Instead, he would remember his creative exploits: the watercolours he dashed off in the Place du Tertre for passers-by; the elaborate paintings he exhibited in the yearly salons for young artists; his translation of Fernande Olivier’s memoir of her time with Picasso. Some of his early Paris sketches survive: they are executed in pastel, with a tell-tale preference for deep hues of mauve or indigo and a tendency towards a fragmentation of the visual field, for he had already come under the influence of the Left Bank avant-garde.
Among the artists he most admired was AndrÃ© Breton, the master-thinker of the surrealists and a man keenly receptive to the appeal of tribal art. Often, Kupka would make visits to Breton’s studio on the Rue Fontaine, where works from Africa and Oceania were hung alongside paintings from the surrealist circle, and it was under Breton’s tutelage that he began haunting the more obscure galleries and museums of Paris, above all the labyrinthine and silent MusÃ©e de l’Homme, at that time the centre of French anthropology. Impelled, doubtless, by ideas from these interlocking literary and academic realms, in the mid-winter of 1951 Kupka left the tiny garret he had just bought in the Rue Saint-Sulpice and set off on a journey whose true purpose remains, even now, a touch obscure, although the large-scale collection of artworks was never far from the forefront of his mind.
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