František Kupka. Aristophanes. Lysistrate (1911), with an Extra Suite of Plates

František Kupka. Aristophanes. Lysistrate (1911), with an Extra Suite of Plates

[Kupka, František] Aristophanes.Lysistrate. Trans. by Lucien Dhuys. Orig. gravures by Francois Kupka. Paris: Blaizot, 1911. xiv, 114 p; ill.; 30 cm. Prospectus bound at the rear. Printed paper over boards, glassine wrapper, faint dampstaining on text throughout. #128 of 250 copies on velin. [WITH] a suite of 21 matted color plates, with remarques and an original small color vignette. Light foxing. Housed in an elaborate custom clamshell case.

     An early work of Kupka’s associated bibliophily with the erotic.  His painting “Le Bibliomane” executed in 1896-98, portrayed his friend Hanuš Jelínek poring over a tome in a shaded glen.  Around the corner three young women in summer dresses spy on the reader flirtatiously. After settling in Paris with his mistress in 1900, Kupka was immersed in bohemian culture, studying anarchism, contributing illustrations to radical and satirical papers, and sunbathing nude.  Between 1905 and 1911, he focused on book illustration, producing etchings for illuminated editions of The Song of Songs, Leconte de Lisle’s Les Erinnyes, Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, and Aeschylus’s Prometheus, which did not see print until 1924.  A later commission, for Herold’s Garlands of Aphrodite (1917) was undertaken only for money and the work so embarrassed Kupka that he used a pseudonym.  But these earlier works in illustration were experimental – he developed a different style adapted to complement each text, a comedy in the case of Aristophanes, a tragedy in the case of Aeschylus. Indeed, according to Pierre Brullé, the Lysistratè and the Promètheus are best appreciated as two complementary facets of a single project on the antipodes of Greek theater.


Kupka, Le Bibliomane

     As Lucien Dhuys notes in his introduction to this volume:

François Kupka, le premier peut-être, exprima le charm léger de la Lysistratè. Artiste aimant farouchement tout ce qui magnifie la vie, il prit, à imager ces pages aux sauveurs voluptueuses, la même joie qu’il eut jadis à tracer sur son cuivre la sauvage horreur des crimes d’Oreste et les visage implacables des Érinnyes. Les foiles aimables de ce livre appelaient une fantasie plus charmant. Pour elles, il grava de delicates eaux-fortes auxquelles un science secrete donna les grâces fraîches des aquarelles. Il s’efforça d’atteindre ces apparences enchanteresses qui enveloppent l’Oeuvre, cèlent la sagesse de sa pensée, semblant les efflorescences d’une sève impétueuse. … Souvent il m’a dit son effort pour ne point assombrir ou glacer ces voluptés vielles de plus de deux millénaire et qui pourtant gardant les seductions de leur jeunesse déchue. … Obsédé par la crainte de trahir ces belles visions, il volute, lorsqu’il en traça l’empreinte, que ses doigts fussent légers et ses esquisses flexibles et transparentes comme sont les images de nos songes.

The critic Ludmila Vachtová rhapsodized further:

[For the Lysistrata, Kupka] discarded the idea of historical and archaeological documentation and his studies became wholly subservient to his artistic aims. Emotionally he understood the play very well. Its mock-serious tone, its fast pace and its eroticism all seemed to prescribe the nature and method of the illustrations. These are to a large extent subtle arabesques of flowing, circling, swinging movement. As regards technique, the experts could not agree for a long time whether they were aquatints, etchings, or even watercolors. They appear to have been drawn under a magnifying glass as the details, especially of the jewelry, are so minute and accurate. This creates an exciting contrast to the free flow of the dresses and limbs.  These illustrations are so full of tension and so masterfully controlled that even when several times enlarged, they lose none of their effectiveness and none of their clear sense of purpose. The warm, almost rococo colour ranges of pink, earthy red, olive green and gold have suffered in the passage of time, but some of the figures where the movement is calmer retain a charm reminiscent of Bakst’s costume designs.

     Indeed, the Lysistrata presaged a turn in Kupka’s work from the representational to the symbolic, and a shift from a reliance on design to an increasing focus on color. There is some dispute about when exactly the illustrations were executed -- Vachtová suggests they were done in 1908-1909, whereas Brullé dates them to 1910-1911. The abstractions of Kupka’s oil paintings of Gigolettes, and his Planes by Color – Large Nude (1909-1910) are direct extensions of his work on the Lysistrata, but so too are his Fugue for Two Colors (1912), the Organic Cycle, and his other compositions in vertical and diagonal planes, curviform zones, and rhythmic energy.  One might regard these illustrations as the chrysalis where Kupka metamorphosed from a Saloniste to a Fauvist, and abandoned academic conformism and technical virtuosity to create a new body of work characterized by philosophical intensity, spiritual profundity, aesthetic power, and celestial joy.


Left: Gigolettes (1909-1910). Right: Amorpha: Fugue for Two Colors (1912)

     While the book is itself uncommon, the suite is very rare indeed. The suite includes remarques not in the published version, often of an erotic nature. The first plate has an original watercolor vignette by the artist. In all, a wonderful production.

Select References

  • Opus NGK 321; Monod, Livres illustrés modernes 454; Cartret, Trésor du bibliophile, IV:48; Mahe, Livres de luxe, 62-63.
  • Ludmila Vachtová, Frank Kupka: pioneer of abstract art (New York, 1968)
  • Pierre Brullé, “Du livre illustré au livre d’artiste,” in Vers des temps nouveaux: Kupka oeuvres graphiques, 1894-1912 (Paris, 2002)

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    František Kupka. Aristophanes. Lysistrate (1911), with an Extra Suite of Plates