Anarchist Satire in Pre-World War I Paris: The Case of František Kupka
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Anarchist Satire in Pre-World War I Paris:
The Case of František Kupka

The rich body of understudied imagery constituting the culture of satire in pre-World War I Paris represents the work of scores of contributing artists, ranging from mockery of manners to biting critique of government policy. While František Kupka is recognized as a major Parisian contributor to the development of modernism and abstraction, his career as a satirist has been sidelined. In 1900, Kupka wrote to his friend the Czech poet Josef S. Machar that he would devote himself in future mainly to lithography and graphics as these media are more "democratic" (Vachtová 41). Kupka published scores of cartoons in France in the prewar period and was recognized at the time as a leading satirist. Here I explore his work in terms of its political and aesthetic aims by focusing on three special issues of the anarchist satirical weekly, L'Assiette au beurre, in which he was responsible for both images and captions. Far from an uninteresting and marginal episode outside the realm of his importance to modernism, Kupka's published cartoons can be understood as a body of work interesting in its own right and operating within the culture of anarchist discourse, political satire, and the commercial press, while retaining central importance for the development of his later abstractions. This work speaks powerfully to a Parisian artist's response to political forces and events as well as reflecting the intersection of anarchist and aesthetic debates.

Kupka was one of the first fully abstract artists of the avant-guerre and an avowed anarchist (Spate, Orphism). A Czech artist trained at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna, who moved to Paris in 1896 (Mladek; Vachtová), Kupka embraced a politicized mystical vision of the artist and the world that justified his deeply critical view of bourgeois society and the political status quo. While at the Vienna Academy from 1891-94, Kupka read widely in literature, philosophy, and social sciences and was therefore immersed in radical critiques of capital and familiar with Karl Marx's and Georg Simmel's writings as well as a range of anarchist theorists (František Kupka, 1871-1957 355).1 Among anarchist avant-gardists of the period—including Pablo [End Page 50] Picasso, Kees Van Dongen, Maurice de Vlaminck and others—Kupka was the only one to work out his aesthetic ideas systematically in his Creation in the Plastic Arts (written c.1910-13). In his art, he thoughtfully experimented with media, styles and subjects while pointedly choosing to address differing audiences, from his early satire to his abstract art. The differences between his mass-produced cartoons, aimed propagandistically at a working-class audience, and his modernist paintings—necessarily aimed at a comprehending elite—chart Kupka's attempt to propagate his anarchist convictions first through didactic satire and then through avant-garde abstractions designed to transform the political and spiritual consciousness of his audience.2

As the Cubist Jacques Villon later testified, "In this period, the influence of the journals on art is incontestable. Thanks to them, painting was liberated from academicism more rapidly" (qtd. in Vallier 37).3 Key modernist figures—including Villon, Van Dongen and Juan Gris—published satirical graphics in numerous journals as well as playing central roles in the development of major modernist movements: Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism.4 For these artists, the vanguardism of their paintings signified a rejection of bourgeois commodification and a stand against the government and the striking economic inequities of the age, constituting a Bakhtinian counter-discourse through the "language" of style. Their satire criticized the political status quo directly and, if Villon was right, played a role in encouraging the "liberation" of painting from the assumptions of academic art.

These relations between art and politics will remain out of focus so long as modernism continues to be conceived as the pursuit of "autonomy." Yet no reading of the art criticism from the 1880s to World War I offers the same concept of the "autonomy of art" evident in either Clement Greenberg's influential art criticism (beginning in 1939 in Partisan Review) or...


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