Kupka exhibit bolsters National Gallery's international partnerships

František Kupka - 'Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours'

The Czech National Gallery is currently hosting a highly publicized exhibit of a selection of works by the famous Czech artist from the first half of the twentieth century – František Kupka. “The road to Amorpha” traces the way the artist’s work evolved from figurative to abstract representation. Radio Prague spoke to the National Gallery’s director Vladimír Rösel and asked him how international institutions were involved in the creation of the exhibition.

Vladimír Rösel,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“We had engaged two curators from Paris - Pierre Brullé and his colleague Markéta Theinhardt (who is a former employee of the National Gallery) - and they developed the concept of the exhibition. The relationship that they had with Centre Pompidou, which was the major contributor to the exhibit, had helped and four other foreign institutions mainly from the US – MoMA from New York, Guggenheim from New York, Philadelphia and Albright-Knox gallery in Buffalo were involved. We turned to them to allow us to bring some masterpieces to Prague that helped us to illustrate the idea of the exhibition.”

How often does the National Gallery have these international collaborations and how much does the National Gallery send some of its items abroad?

“Originally, the National Gallery was very active in providing art loans and collaborating with various international galleries and museums. That stopped after the year 2000 to a certain extent and we now want to become more international again. We have one major obstacle, however, and that is the fact that the National Gallery is just a custodian of the art pieces that belong to the state and, unfortunately, state property could be subject to some claims that institutions or individuals might have with respect to the [Czech] state. Unfortunately this is what happened last year when two pieces that were lent by the National Gallery were seized in Vienna. Since then, we've had to be very careful about which country we loan art to.

František Kupka - 'Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours' | Photo: National Gallery
“In the case of the Kupka exhibition, we certainly plan to present this exhibition in other galleries, however at the moment it is quite unlikely that this will happen in the near future. We do have a plan, which we have discussed with the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, to schedule a version of this exhibition to be presented there in the spring 2015. We also plan to organise a three-venue project that will include Prague, Paris and New York where a broad retrospective of František Kupka will be displayed in the year 2017.”

The authors of the exhibit tried to make a strong case that Kupka is the first, or at least one of the first European artists who took that step from cubism to abstract art. Is that the way that Kupka is portrayed abroad as well, is he seen as one of the innovators?

“Well it’s difficult to say who was first, however with this exhibition we are trying to present Kupka as someone who certainly was not only a pioneer, but someone who started the whole process of turning figurative painting into non-figurative. That evolution can be traced through the exhibition. It starts at a time when Kupka moved from Vienna to Paris in 1895. There, he began looking at various different ways in which he could present art. The way he looked at it was highly philosophical.

“This exhibition is also really an anniversary; a centenary of the Autumn Salon in Paris in 1912 where he presented the two Amorphas. The whole idea of the exhibition is to present how he got from the figurative to the non-figurative or abstract art and how the whole evolution of his way of portraying things evolved [from 1906 to 1912].”

So you are trying to open the National Gallery more and more to international collaborations. Are there plans in the future to have major exhibits where you would involve institutions from abroad?

František Kupka - 'Autumn Sun',  photo: National Gallery
“Well, it’s my goal to make the National Gallery more international than it used to be. I plan to capitalise on the relationship that I have with a number of institutions like the Guggenheim, or the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, or Museu Picasso in Barcelona and elsewhere and mainly to show the core of the National Gallery that would be especially interesting to the international community - which is definitely [Czech] modern art. At this very moment we are finalizing the packaging of 107 paintings of classic Czech modern art that will be presented at the end of this month in Seoul, South Korea. It’s going to be the largest exhibition of Czech modern art outside of the Czech Republic.”

The Kupka exhibit is housed in the Salmovský Palace which is the first exhibit that the palace has seen in the past 10 years. The National Gallery has renovated it recently and has linked it now architecturally with Schwarzenberský Palace. Can you talk a little bit about the project?

““In 2004, the National Gallery acquired the Salmovský Palace for potential refurbishment, and the refurbishment was completed in November 2011, and we were able to open the Salmovský Palace officially in November of last year along with the Kupka exhibition. One of the achievements we had during the refurbishment of the Salmovský Palace was the connection that was constructed between the Salmovský Palace and the Schwarzenberg Palace which houses the new visitors’ centre. It was done by a Spanish architect and it’s a new approach how one can actually enter a National Gallery building.

“The National Gallery is primarily about historical buildings. We manage five baroque palaces, one medieval convent and a modernist edifice, which is the Veletržní Palác. All of these buildings were not designed for housing art, they were designed for something completely different. With the visitors centre that we just opened with the Kupka exhibition, we constructed a space specifically designed for the art gallery.”

Salmovský Palace,  photo: Kristýna Maková
And are there any plans to make the Salmovský Palace somehow different, will it be housing separate exhibits or will it have a permanent exhibit as the Schwarzenberský Palace does?

“Salmovský Palác has been destined for a permanent exhibition, however at this moment we have been experiencing some difficulties on how to best utilise the space. Unfortunately, Salmovský Palace was not built for noblemen, but rather for civil servants. It was a living and office compound, it was not truly a palatial style palace, so the rooms are very small and they are very difficult to turn into exhibition spaces. We have to be very careful about how we manage the space - on the one hand presenting the art well, but at the same time keeping an eye on it so that the art pieces will are in danger in terms of the number of visitors and certainly the climate conditions in the rooms.

“The Kupka [exhibit] is the first opportunity for us to experience the space and the conditions and we will continue with that trial period. In May of this year, we plan on presenting Dutch and Belgian art from the 19th century here that will allow us again to observe the space and finally make a decision on how to best utilise it.”

How did idea of the exhibit come together with this space?

“We were primarily looking for an intimate space that would allow Kupka, and the theme of the exhibition to be well presented, and it occurred to us that the Salmovský Palace, because of its size and because of its novelty, and because it’s a newly opened palace would be the best space where we could present something that is so particular.”