In 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 École 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 André 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 Musée 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.
At Marseille he boarded a flying boat of Trans Oceanic Airways, bound for Australia, a continent he had provisionally identified as the best place to find “evidence furnished directly by people whose living conditions and way of life most closely approach those of the first man”. But international air travel, in those days, was a slow, haphazard affair: the Star of Australia put down for a brief technical stop in Malta. Two days later, during take-off, it crashed, and promptly foundered in Valletta harbour. The passengers and crew escaped and swam to safety. Kupka sat alone on the rocky shore: all he had left was his passport and a sheaf of low-denomination travellers’ cheques - and it was hard, for a man of his strikingly imaginative cast of mind, not to feel at once that he had been spared from death for urgent tasks, and also that he had, in some sense, died and been reborn in the stricken aircraft, and that his journey to Australia spelled the beginning of a new and deeper life.
Two months passed before he was able to reach Melbourne and make a set of quick visits to the other capitals of the Australian south-east. While there he met various members of the cultural class, including the painter Carl Plate and the photographer Axel Poignant, who had been strongly affected by a recent journey into Arnhem Land. These men helped refine Kupka’s views and guided him towards the few collections of Aboriginal art then on public display.
He returned to Paris transfixed by the memory of what he had seen: painted shields, rough barks, carved stones, sculpted heads. He had sketched and documented them in detail: he was sure he would be able to “transmit his emotions” on first encountering such works to the museum curators of western Europe - and so, indeed, it proved. His travels brought him to the city of Basel, where he formed a close connection with the director of the Museum für Völkerkunde, Professor Alfred Buhler. This was the first in a series of professional bonds with father-figures that guided Kupka in his most productive years: the relationship between the two men, which is traced in the museum’s records, was one of serene, unbroken trust. It was founded on a broad conception of European culture as their shared patrimony, and on elaborate ideas about creativity and the evolution of art.
At that time the Basel museum possessed only a handful of north-Australian bark paintings, which had been picked up in the field decades before by an intrepid entomologist. Buhler commissioned Kupka to make a journey to Arnhem Land and create there, in concert with the artists of the country, a collection that would catch the spirit of that world.
Such was the mission that had brought Kupka to Milingimbi Island, a place that seems always to hover between the sea and sky. It lies just off the mainland, north-west of the Glyde River mouth; its attendant reefs and sandbars slip away into the Arafura Sea. For centuries it has been a realm of meetings and exchange. Macassan trepang fishers made camp on its shores; Aboriginal clans from all along the coastline gathered there for negotiations; and in the 1920s the Methodist Overseas Mission placed its first regional outpost on the island’s eastern edge, close by an established Macassan well - and it was the mission’s staff who met Kupka that morning at the airstrip and drove him through the stringy-bark forests, past the swamps and salt-flats, to their little community of mud-brick homes. Nearby, along the shore, beneath tall tamarind trees, the native people kept their camps, segregated by family and by clan affiliations. Visitors of any kind were infrequent then at such remote mission posts; no one had ever seen or heard of an art collector.
Kupka set to work. Within a few weeks he had forged close understandings with two Aboriginal men of high authority, both clan leaders, Djawa and Dawidi. These two became the central artists in his collections; all through his life he referred to them as his brothers, and their association still survives in ghostly form today: for on trips out to Milingimbi Island, I have often heard young children on the beachfront singing, in the most elegant of Parisian accents, stray snatches of French folk songs or nursery rhymes, imparted to their grandparents decades before by Kupka as part of some elaborate musical exchange.
Djawa, whom Kupka liked to describe as the “chief” or “headman” of Milingimbi, held court beside the boys’ nursery, under the giant tamarind: the spot is named Rulku, after the gall bladder of the barramundi, which serves as the totem for the area. Even by the austere standards of the Yolngu tribes of north-east Arnhem Land, Djawa was a grave, impressive figure, much given to explaining the fine points of clan politics and strongly involved in the domain of the secret-sacred - a realm that seemed ever-present on Milingimbi in those days, so routinely were ceremonies performed beyond the mission compound: initiations and funerals, and rituals for the morning star.
Kupka also spent much time at the next-door camp, with Dawidi, who was younger and painted in a style rich with signs and symbols, almost a “painted literature”, ideally suited for decoding by the Western eye. These men filled his thoughts: he studied them, he watched them performing their mortuary dances, he took down their every word in his notebooks, and so much of them sank into him that they often seem strangely present in his ramifying, understated prose. There is a lovely, well-known photograph by Kupka which hints at the bond between him and his subjects: he called it The Artists’ Workshop. The painters are all sitting cross-legged, bent over, drawing fine lines with tiny brushes on the surfaces of their barks. To one side of the group, a young boy looks up, smiling at the camera; on the other, an old man, his head resting on his hand, his face reflective, gazes up. Sunlight bleaches the background: the blurred leaves at the top of the image look oddly like encroaching, all-consuming tongues of fire.
For much of that dry season, Kupka carried out his interviews at Milingimbi, questioning, collecting, tuning his mind to the thoughts of his informants - and he even made an early stab at capturing those experiences in English, in a brief, emotive piece “by Karel Kupka of Paris”, which was printed in a missionary magazine: “I shall always remember vividly my stay at Milingimbi, which was not only the most interesting but also the happiest time I had spent for years.” He allows his thoughts to roam across the various challenges before the missions, and the role of ritual and Christian religion in Arnhem Land; he even touches on the artistic upsurge underway, before he finds himself retelling the mythological stories he had encountered: creation sagas, apocalyptic, full of deaths and reanimations, the flow of living matter between worlds.
Soon Kupka began making wider forays, criss-crossing the far north, calling in at other missions; he travelled as far afield as Yirrkala, Port Keats and the Tiwi Islands, perfecting his distinctly romantic response to the Australian landscape as he went: “The continent itself belongs to the Earth’s past. It is a land of strange beauty, so unlike other continents that the visitor sometimes wonders if he has not landed on another planet.” Every feature was ambiguous, and Kupka takes a quiet delight in the country’s failure to conform with European patterns: “Immense expanses generally end in a perfectly straight horizon. There are few mountains, and those that do exist are usually isolated. The ground is often rocky; the shallow rivers, when not dry, irrigate an apparently sparse vegetation.” The animals, too, were anachronistic; they were survivors, for the most part devoid of threatening force and sometimes engaged in irrational alliances with man. The snakes, for instance, though represented by 150 species, from the most harmless to the deadliest, were “passably discreet”, and it even seemed to him that “they had a tacit agreement with their human neighbours, for they tactfully avoid each other.”
After the first few of these side trips, a key turned in Kupka’s heart. He had pictured himself as an outsider, carrying out profound investigations - investigations which, as he rather tactlessly informed the missionaries, he would not be able to couch in terms simple enough to explain to them. He aspired, initially, to a kind of severe truthfulness; he mistrusted the subjective eye; he was a foe of individual judgement: “The appreciations of an observer would be superfluous, if not actually undesirable,” he wrote, in a stern note of reminder to himself.
But once he had become more familiar with the far reaches of the Northern Territory, his thoughts about the travels he was making began to shift: “I refuse to call my journeys ‘exploration’. There is a peculiar attraction in the Australian bush, the outback, in spite of its bareness - which in any case is amply offset by the friendliness of its inhabitants, whatever their origins.” No longer was he the solitary man of science. “I was warmly received and greatly helped, not only by the Aborigines but also by the white settlers, missionaries and government officials, who took an interest in a lone traveller virtually without baggage.” Without the support of the Welfare Branch of the Territory administration and the backing of the different religious missions, as he well knew, his expeditions would have come to nothing. In a brief note glancing back on his experiences - he published it only years later - Kupka expresses all he longed to find, and all he had been afraid of, in Arnhem Land: “Any fears I may have had of being considered as an intruder were soon forgotten: I was indeed looked on as a friend.”
By now his idea of his task was gaining greater definition. He had travelled sufficiently to realise that the north was home to many styles of art. He knew he was the only Western artist, fully alive to the trends and experiments of the modern avant-garde, who had even seen these works. He had just paid his first trip to Croker Island, a slender spine of swamp and stringy-bark that juts out northwards from the Cobourg Peninsula: it holds a number of the region’s most potent sacred sites. At Croker’s Methodist mission Kupka met two artists from the mainland, Paddy Compass Namatbara and Jimmy Midjawu-Midjawu, who painted sorcery figures: writhing entities with twining hands and deformed bodies, alive with fearful energy. Often the creatures they depicted were Maam spirits, members of a spectral Dreamtime race, dead beings which could become dangerous if not properly appeased - for Namatbara and Midjawu-Midjawu were marrkitj, or witchdoctors, and were constantly engaged in acts of healing magic. Their art embodied this hidden field of knowledge, and Kupka was at once drawn to it and troubled by its intensity - for he knew that of all the works he had collected, these figures, which teetered on the brink of the grotesque and seemed to inhabit the realm of gargoyles or creatures from a hallucinogenic dream, would prove the most beautiful to European eyes.
At this point in Kupka’s progress, near the end of his first, triumphant collecting season, it seems a simple thing to imagine the thoughts and plans and hopes that enticed him on, that led him to believe there was a role for him in northern Australia - and in the continued pursuit and explanation of works he saw as mirrors, reflecting from the dawn of time. He told himself that he was searching for the origins of art, its motive forces, the nature of the need that it was striving to fulfil. Such was his overarching idea, but it was also a compulsion: what was original and pure and untainted by the mark of Western culture could have redemptive force, could allow him to gaze beyond the veils and the deceptive draperies of the world he knew. For Kupka was in the field at a time when Europe’s place as the emblem of beauty was newly overthrown: the continent was shattered; its cities had been bombed and broken; his own homeland was ruled by a collective of bleak dictators. What could be more natural than to turn from this spectacle and put one’s trust in an art free from the chains of history and besetting influences: an art that blew straight from the realm of myth to the viewing eye? There was an element in Kupka’s personality that welcomed this ill-concealed revolt against his tradition: in place of his own fine pastels and insipid sketches, he would give prominence to works of primal splendour; he would uncover them and understand them, and - since he was one of those for whom self-effacement is a form of transcendence - he would ensure his own part in their revelation was soon eclipsed.
Even as these thoughts unfurled inside him, though, he was in the grip of an urge that gained a stronger hold on him with every day: it was the collector’s disease, that unsleeping impulse to acquire, to classify, to create a microcosm where order and pattern can be shored up against the world. In his trips through Arnhem Land, this was the instinct that came to dominate and to goad him into spells of frenzied commissioning and buying, as if he expected every day of painting at the missions to be the last. And here was the core of Kupka’s attraction to the Aboriginal domain of north Australia, even if he could not yet confess this to himself: like many of his contemporaries, he suspected that it was passing, that it was vanishing before his eyes and that he was the last man who would see it as it truly was.
All these conflicting beliefs and attitudes can be traced in Kupka’s correspondence, and in his memoirs of his first collecting days, which are brief and vivid, and which paint, for those who seek to follow in his steps, a picture of the artist in his prime - until he seems almost present before the living eye once more, poised, beside some red-dirt airstrip, waiting: tall and thin, and somewhat out of place.
As soon as the dry-season months were done, and build-up clouds were forming in the sky, Kupka went back to Darwin, where he had a promise to keep. At that time the postwar reconstruction of the city was underway; plans were being drawn up for a new Catholic cathedral to replace the original church, which had been damaged beyond repair in the first Japanese attacks. The resultant building, St Mary’s Star of the Sea, stands today on the corner of Smith and Maclachlan streets. Its walls are made from white porcellanite stone, cut from the cliffs of Darwin Harbour; its clean lines and parabolic concrete arches lend it the look of a crouching animal. The architect intended his creation to be neo-gothic, though to many eyes it seems like a species of tropical Romanesque, with a distinct air of the military bunker about it, and some members of the local congregation needed years to come to terms with the harshness of its design. Many aspects of the new St Mary’s are unusual: it is a war memorial as well as a place of worship; its foundation stone is crystalline metamorphosed rock from the Rum Jungle uranium mine; beneath its floors are little cache burials: blades, spears, muskets and other emblems of conflict from colonial times.
While he was on the Tiwi Islands, Kupka had met Bishop John Patrick O’Laughlin, a man of progressive leanings. The two fell into conversation one night, and the bishop, on learning that Kupka was not only a Catholic but an artist, made him an unusual proposition. Would he be prepared to paint an Aboriginal Madonna for the new cathedral? This dream had been with Bishop O’Laughlin for many years, ever since his time at the Yule River mission in Papua, where he had seen how the natives were being encouraged to employ their tribal patterns for ecclesiastical designs. Together with the administrator of the Star of the Sea, Father Frank Flynn, the Bishop showed Kupka the cathedral plans and explained what they were hoping for: something, they said, along the lines of the Japanese and Chinese Madonnas that had proved so popular in other missionary outposts of the church.
Kupka accepted at once, and old-timers in Darwin remember his elation in those days, when he was newly back from the bush and full of stories of adventures, and when his grand ideas were taking shape. He set up a makeshift studio in one of the schoolrooms of St Mary’s Convent, surrounded himself with his haul of carvings and bark paintings, and plunged himself into the task. For months he had seen beauty and painted nothing; he had been steeped in a world of worship and magic; his own faith had been subtly remade. Each day, after he had made a beginning, the bishop and Father Flynn would visit the studio and check on his progress; and they were particularly touched by the solution the artist had found for the problem of the Madonna’s pose. Instead of cradling the Christ-child in her lap, the Madonna is carrying her son on her shoulders, in the fashion of Aboriginal women from the Tiwi Islands and the Daly River, with one of her hands clasping the baby by the ankle and the other resting gently on his hip.
They were also intrigued by the features of the virgin: she had a noticeable air of self-possession about her. They had asked Kupka to present an idealised version of Aboriginal womanhood, blending aspects from different models at the various Catholic missions he had visited. The Madonna’s face, though, was clearly delineated, and her character seemed precisely caught as well, much like the Madonnas of certain Renaissance artists, who have the look of a living individual. There has been speculation about her story in church circles ever since: some think Kupka based her features on a Tiwi woman; others say she has the manner and the bearing of a young mother from Port Keats.
Father Flynn, who prided himself on his sensibility, would often sit with Kupka in the studio, discussing trends in art, and in his memoir, Northern Gateway, he gives an account of one of their talks:
For weeks while painting the picture, Kupka was at a loss to find a suitable background for his finished figures. He experimented with a variety of tropical landscapes featuring ghost gums, pandanus palms - but he was not satisfied with any of these. He told me of this difficulty one day when I was in the studio with him after lunch. Around the walls he had hundreds of examples of native art displayed, which he was classifying during the moments when he rested from painting. I cast my eye around these and with a sweep of my hand I said: “Karel, you have the material for your background right here.”
As Flynn explained it, a combination of clan designs from all across the north would enable the Madonna to represent both the Christian dedication of the native peoples and their “new cultural aspirations as well”.
Kupka absorbed this advice, which he had surely expected Flynn to give, and painted in a detailed background of totemic emblems. They shimmered, and lent the painting the gleam of an Eastern icon - and when it was unveiled, in the new cathedral, long after Kupka’s return to Europe, the work was much admired, and even venerated, for several years. Its prominence, though, has passed. Other Aboriginal artworks are more celebrated today, the missionary focus of the church has dissipated, and a decade ago the Madonna was stolen from the cathedral - by an Aboriginal man, as it happens, who tried to ransom her back to the Darwin diocese; she was returned, a little bruised and damaged - and now she hangs, out of harm’s way, high on the east transept wall, where it is hard to see her eyes, or catch the expression on her face.
Kupka travelled on, to Sydney, where he endured a brief celebrity, giving interviews and writing newspaper articles about his explorations. A photographer for the Daily Telegraph took his picture during this stay: it is a strictly composed image, almost heraldic in its tone: Kupka is encased in a thick, stiff herringbone tweed jacket; his face is drawn, his eyes are hooded - they look aside and down at an incised spear-thrower, which he is clasping in his hands: it forms a sharp diagonal. Behind him hang rough barks from Beswick and Groote Eylandt, and geometric-patterned boards from Port Keats. Dominating the scene is a large painting by Midjawu-Midjawu, which shows the thunder spirit encircled by lightning bolts and grasping a crocodile in one hand. The surface of the bark is oddly accented by faint dabs of mauvish colour; the neck of the spirit-being has been cut off by the photo-frame.
Two exhibitions presenting some of the works Kupka had collected on his journeys were organised: at the first, held in the East Sydney Technical College, the opening speech was given by AP Elkin, the long-standing professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney, a former priest and a committed admirer of Darwin’s ideas on human origins. Elkin had already written Aboriginal Men of High Degree, the slender set of lectures that preserves his name today: it is matchless in its sympathetic account of Aboriginal witchdoctors and magic men, their acts, their beliefs and their moments of access to the supernatural domain. Pattern, ritual beauty and the quest for hidden insights made a strong appeal to Elkin. A connection was born between Kupka and the professor, who was then already 65 years old, and who would serve, for the remaining two decades of his life, as the younger man’s protector and confidant, as a consoling presence, an intimate and faithful correspondent - and it is chiefly thanks to this enduring tie that Kupka’s advance into the shadows can be tracked at all.
That night, Elkin spoke with enthusiasm about Kupka’s European imagination and the works he had brought back with him from distant Arnhem Land: how pure they were, in line and form and colour: expressions of myth emerging into the present day. The crowd was made up of Kings Cross bohemians, many of whom knew Kupka; but in the gallery, beneath the lights, when his turn came to speak he seemed a pale, transfigured creature, striking through with his words to some uncharted higher realm. In fact he was spreading before them, in the most tumbled, disordered fashion, the first shards of the quest narrative that was already taking shape inside his head.
Un Art a l’État Brut, which appeared in print in Lausanne only six years later, is a strange production, with its meandering arguments, its retellings of Aboriginal myth, its deployments of theory and its little scene-setting anecdotes. It advances many claims and yet it has an inert, silent tone; it leaves one with almost nothing; its words feel like the dusty antechamber of a tomb, as if Kupka could not bring himself to disclose the things he knew or even hint at the lures that drew him on. “The Aborigines of Australia,” he declares, “live in a universe of their own, which has yet to reveal many of its secrets” - and this is the tapestry he chooses as the background for his treatise on the birth of art. Why does art exist? How can we know it? It is not merely the expression of our sense of beauty, nor is it a record of lived events. No: “One must see works of art in order to feel them” - and at once Kupka has touched the murky heart of his enterprise: speech, writing and reading are all very well, he argues, in so far as they help towards understanding, “but they cannot be enough in themselves, for it is indispensable to share the emotion of the artist creator, and this experience is too personal to be conveyed by words alone.” Best, in fact, to be an artist, to live the artist’s life, to dwell in primal splendour in the depths of Arnhem Land, the world he chronicles in the most dispassionate, objective style over the next nine richly illustrated chapters, before disclosing to his readers that this path to the stars is gone: for even if “today is the golden age for Aboriginal plastic arts,” they will not endure much longer; their disappearance is inexorably drawing near. The bark paintings may gain the attention of outsiders, they may even become known around the world, but ahead on this path danger lies, and Kupka is himself the agent of this threat. He is the despoiler coming into the garden: whatever he touches will fade and rot, for in his hands he holds the curses of reward and fame.
Kupka drives his words on, he plays to the hilt his own appointed role in the story; he sketches the chain of events that his first arrival in Arnhem Land set inexorably in train. For the prosperity that will follow in his wake is bound to be ephemeral and, as he writes in his closing pages, “it implies the decline of the art, which, before dying, will become empty decoration, its profound meaning, the basic reason for its existence having disappeared as a result of changes in its creators’ life.”
Freighted with such dark conclusions and guarded by its spare, resistant prose, Un Art a l’État Brut received only brief attention before it fell into obscurity, as did a later English version, Dawn of Art, which Kupka himself translated during a research trip back to north Australia the following year. The book would have been wholly forgotten were it not for its blazing preface, ‘Main Premiere’, written for Kupka by André Breton after long talks between the two men.
The composition of this text can be precisely dated: it was sketched out in Breton’s studio during the days of the Cuban missile crisis, when the master of surrealism was in a renunciatory mood. Breton had never quite shaken off the sense of dread that filled him upon the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945: in those weeks once more he felt that he was standing on the edge of an abyss, and that “ours is a world in dissolution, shaken by the horror of the passage from one moment to the next.” Indeed he was somewhat puzzled that Kupka had actually returned to Paris from Australia. “How is it,” he enquired presciently, “that he has not settled there permanently?” For Australia had a poetic magnetism all its own. Breton’s conceptions of the country were a trifle vague: “For ages, children’s curiosity has feasted on the unique nature of the land’s fauna - marsupials and monotremes - which seems expressly created to strengthen the idea or the illusion of a lost world.” But this did not stop him from admiring the barks or developing a thought about the patterns underlying them in nature - a vertiginous thought that even today sets the mind free to roam: “Their textures,” wrote Breton,
from the tightest to the most supple, correspond so perfectly to the restrained yet very rich range of colours that the immediate pleasure they afford is liable to be confused with that given by shells from that part of the world - cones, volutes, an infinity of shapes. It is as if these paintings borrow the entire panoply of the shells: even the underlying glow of mother-of-pearl is not lacking.
Before returning to Darwin and the north, Kupka, in gratitude, gave Breton one of the most sombre works in his collection, a large bark by Paddy Compass Namatbara depicting two Maam figures - and for several decades the two spirit-beings hung in their contorted splendour, like lonely emissaries at a foreign court, alongside Hopi masks and masterworks of high modernism on the walls of Breton’s studio in the Rue Fontaine.
Nicolas Rothwell is an author and a journalist for the Australian. His books include The Red Highway and Journeys to the Interior, and his coverage of Indigenous affairs has earned him a Walkley Award.
In 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...