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European scientific-artistic approach united with Eastern wisdom in Art & Life by Alfred F. Krupa

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Alfred Freddy Krupa is a Croatian artist, one of the leading representatives of Modern European ink painting according to The Allgemeines Kunstlerlexikon (AKL) - World Biographical Dictionary of Artists.

To the general public from the United States to China and Japan he is better known as the pioneer of the New Ink movement. The winner of numerous prestigious awards and prizes in the field of contemporary art, as well as in the art of calligraphy, including the 'New Ink-Painting Art Award' November 2021 by the ICCPS in Tokyo, Japan; twice in China 2013 / ICCPS Special Advisory Award / and 2018 / 1st place in the competition for the occasion of the Chinese Year of the Dog.

His unique origins and privileged upbringing initially foreshadowed an unusual destiny for the future artist. Alfred is a Silesian by paternal origin, one of the representatives of the rare Slavic people of Upper Silesia, which is located in the territory of Poland, as well as partly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There are less than 1 million people who refer to themselves as Silesian and Alfred Freddy Krupa is one of them.

From early childhood, Alfred was taught to love the fine arts. The creative abilities of the young artist were encouraged and developed in every possible way in the family. Especially from his outstanding grandfather, who, in turn, had the opportunity to learn from the legendary Jozef Mehoffer, one of the greatest figures in the Young Poland movement, who brought modernism to Polish culture.

During the difficult period of the Homeland War in Croatia (1991-1995), young Krupa turned to the culture of the Far East. His many years of knowledge of various philosophical movements, as well as the experience of spiritual practices, is displayed in his New Ink Art Manifesto 1996. At that time, the artist deeply rethought the oriental approach to modern ink painting and shared the results of his theoretical analysis in articles, notes, and books.

In his art, Alfred Krupa masterfully and succinctly combines minimalism of the East, with the sensual expression characteristic of a Western artist. His work erases conventional boundaries, expands and enriches the viewer's perception. At the same time, the art of Alfred Krupa betrays the artist's very personal, subjective experiences. So, studying the works of Alfred Freddy Krupa, the viewer can not only enjoy the visual aesthetics of plastic lines and the harmony of composition, but also try to comprehend the deep experience of the creative soul. Alfred Freddy Krupa's art can be found in various museum collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Tate Britain in London.

How did Alfred Krupa, despite all the difficulties, manage to start his career at the border of the occupied territory of Croatia in the early 90s? What merits did the artist, along with Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba, receive the title of baron and hereditary knighthood from King Kigeli V (1936-2016), the last sovereign ruler of Rwanda? How does Alfred Freddy Krupa, Honorary Doctor of Contemporary Ink Painting, Teacher of Fine Arts, Honorary Member of the International Academy of Arts in Volos (Greece) assess the current state of contemporary art? You will learn the answers, after reading this detailed and heartfelt interview with this genius of our time.

Alfred Freddy Krupa
photo by: Dinko Neskusil

Yuliana Arles: Your grandfather, teacher and mentor, Alfred Joseph Krupa, was an honored artist, founder of the Yugoslavian Watercolor Biennale, as well as a student of the fabled Józef Mehoffer. Returning to your childhood and early adolescence, did you feel then that you were about to become one of the pioneers in the history of art? Did you then dream to devote your life to art?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: No, I didn't know what was going to happen. I had a wonderful childhood and youth during the 1970s and 1980s. At a time when the former Yugoslavia was experiencing the peak of the development of its urban and intellectual (artistic) class. Growing up in a then significant family, I always felt that I had a lot of love and protection. I met my great-great-grandmother (from the mother's side), my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and there were other family members. We all hung out and often communicated, and there were no existential stresses that came in the 1990s and continue to this day.

My dad, mom, and I (later sisters and brother) lived in a beautiful palace in the center of Karlovac together with my grandfather Alfred (and grandmother and great-grandmother) so his influence was definitely formative. He was the type of noble person (unencumbered by nation and religion or ideology) that everyone loved, who literally disarmed you with his smile and vivid gray-blue eyes. And when you were his grandson, then you definitely knew it!

He often took me with him, to visit artists, to exhibitions, I sat next to him when customers came, journalists, when he painted something or prepared cardboard shoulders for watercolors… My grandfather very often bought me, and later my sisters and brother, various drawing pads, crayons, and felt-tip pens.

The other day, I found the first photo I took when he gave me a camera when I went out with him while he was photographing the city in 1977 (I was 6 years old). In that photo, I took a picture of him standing under the monument to the painter Vjekoslav Karas. Among his belongings, I found my very early ballpoint pen drawings that I drew when I was quite young. It was then that I realized that he had an inner hope and desire that I continue to pursue a painting vocation.

Yuliana Arles: As we see, you and your grandfather had a warm and trusting relationship. However, considering all the merits in the field of culture of your legendary ancestor, did you feel support or rather pressure from your family to aim for great results in the future?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: Definitely, he and no one else ever told me anything about it. No one directed me, the way it regularly happens. In the early 1980s (in elementary school) I started drawing more intensively, but then it let me go, and I was caught up in puberty and adolescence, which in themselves carry both confusion and searching. So I ended up at the Secondary Veterinary School in Zagreb, and not, for example, at the School of Applied Arts in Zagreb.

I practiced Cynology and I confused my love for dogs with veterinary medicine. I realized that very quickly. The school was extremely difficult, especially for me who traveled from home every day (first by train, then by tram, then by bus), but I knew I had to finish it now. However, even then I did not stop doing creative work, so I made posters for the information cabinet of the Kennel Club Karlovac on the city promenade. At that time I fell into a great crisis (which I experienced inwards, not outwards) of identity until I 'remembered (!)' Who I was, felt what I really wanted and where my path lay.

Alfred Joseph Krupa
Alfred Joseph Krupa

Yuliana Arles: Do you remember that turning point in your life when you realized that your destiny is to create art?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: I can show the exact spot on the street exactly halfway between my house and the city theater where that awareness pierced me. It is difficult for me to convey the intensity of realization and the power of inner emotional relief after a few years of increasing inner pressure. It was a beautiful sunny day! From that day on, I embarked intensely on drawing, studying art history, and anything I thought would make it easier for me to make up for “lost time”.

Yuliana Arles: How then did your grandfather react to your decision to return to art?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: Grandpa was very, very happy! I remember when he once entered our living room just as I was finishing a portrait of my sister, hugged me from behind, and said 'Where have you been hiding so far !?'. He was a strict teacher, he did not spare me criticism if he thought that I had not done something as it should be. We used to talk for a long time, sometimes until late at night. And then he died. Suddenly, one morning at 6.15 in 1989. I burst into the room when I heard my grandmother's horrifying screams, 'Alfred, nooo!' (I knew immediately what it was because he had been suffering from angina pectoris for years) and started massaging his heart (eventually it was more of a punch to the chest) but there was no help.

It was such a deeply traumatic and painful event that even today I cannot talk about those moments without shedding a tear. Anyway, if by then I had any more doubts about whom I would be, that morning, those doubts were gone forever. I decided that I would succeed and that nothing would stop me from doing so. It can slow me down, take me 'aside', but it won't stop me. Since then, primarily because of myself, because I am what I am, and then also because of him because in a way he continues to live.

Yuliana Arles: I am very sorry that you have lost your beloved grandfather, and at the same time the support of an authoritative mentor. Can you tell us how your career as a young artist developed at that time? When was your talent noticed and presented to the public?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: In a way, the fulfillment of my career came very quickly, because I was 'discovered' at the age of 19. That is, in the last year of Yugoslavia's existence - 1990. I was mentioned by the then extremely popular magazine 'Weekend'. I participated in the first humanitarian art action, I exhibited at a group exhibition of talented children and young people, and in the fall I had my first modest solo exhibition, which was reported by the daily newspaper 'Večernji list'.

The first 'real' large solo exhibition opened on July 1, 1992 in the art salon 'Zorin dom' in Karlovac, the city in which the eastern outskirts were occupied. The art critic was provided by Mladen Muić (1952-2014). The video from the opening of that exhibition can be seen on Youtube.

Yuliana Arles: Continuing the theme of the roots and cultural heritage of your family, we can see how a difficult, unforgettable experience of war passes through generations. Your eminent grandfather was one of the 13 main artists of the Croatian anti-fascist movement. Your father Mladen Krupa created a portable bunker called Krupa-M91, which was used during the War in Croatia 1991 – 1995. How did the war period affect the formation of your personality at that time?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: War is an impoverishing experience. Like a serious illness. And I think it's hard to apply the saying 'what doesn't destroy you, makes you stronger' I would rather say 'what doesn't destroy you, cripples you'. War was never exactly an inspiration to me.

When I say that, I mean those artists who consciously used the moment and did entire opuses based on the ideas of war and sacrifice, all imbued with religious pathos. Then and in the years that followed, they flourished. However, none of these artists painted on the front side, did not record the moment, as the artists did both in the First and Second World War, among them my grandfather. Yes, I have several works from those times, and I think that they carry the uniqueness of the moment when they were created.

Yuliana Arles: As a student, you yourself witnessed military conflict in your country. It was at that time when such artworks as “My family is sleeping in the corridor during the bombing of the city of Karlovac on 12/28/1991”, “Abandoned estate at the Belinsko selo” and “Summer 1991. Waiting for the great spider” were created. Can you tell us how and under what circumstances did these significant paintings appear??

Summer 1991. Waiting for the great spider
Summer 1991. Waiting for the great spider

Alfred Freddy Krupa: The work 'Summer 1991. Waiting for the great spider' was created in the summer of 1991 during the period when I escaped from the Yugoslav People's Army in Slovenia (where I was serving compulsory military service). Due to my escape from the JNA I missed the regular entrance exam on the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb and I needed to go on the extraordinary deadline for the entrance exam starting on September 16, 1991.

Nobody know that that day would become known as the day when Zagreb was bombed for the first time (airborne rocketing of transmitters on Sljeme). The entire exam was constant air raid alerts. First, we ran to the basement, and then we gave up, the sirens sounded but we (how poetically...) stayed in class to work. I came (and was) to the exam with my grandfather's World War II trophy pistol 6.35, tucked into the belt under my jacket, and uncle Željko who accompanied me had my dad's TT (dad prepared and armed us all that).

Anyhow, to go back to the main story, after I returned from Slovenia (this is an episode in itself) I hid in our apartment, no one knew it except my immediate family because I was wanted by members of the military counterintelligence service (KOS).

Even though there was no war or destruction of the city that summer (which will follow in the fall). You felt like you were entering some strange space of violent transition of worlds without knowing exactly what you were losing and what exactly you were gaining. But you see the threat and danger all around you. Not illusory. Dad had already secretly joined the city's defense organization. Then I drew it, that symbolically colored drawing (self-portrait/self-nude). This work, of course, has more meanings, not only one.

My family is sleeping in the corridor during the bombing of the city of Karlovac on 28.12.1991 (1991)

The second work 'My family is sleeping in the corridor during the bombing of the city of Karlovac on 12/28/1991' was created during the bombing of the city center (i.e., my house). Luckily, my house was not affected, but the surrounding ones were and people died. The attack lasted a very long time, and I was sitting at the end of the long hallway of our apartment. By coincidence, I was at home, and not in the barracks because I was already in the Croatian Army at the time. Watching them all lying on the floor or sitting against the wall, I thought about everything and felt that it was a 'moment' that is happening now in our lives and never again. I was wrong, it was just one in a series of nasty days of rocketing and bombing.

Anyway, I took what was at hand (you had to crawl around the apartment, but it's best not to move at all), typewriter paper, 0.5 mm technical pencils and watercolor paint. And then I sketched it out. This was not an elaborated piece, but I think that this was the only such work in the whole war in Croatia that was created in such circumstances.

'Abandoned estate at the Belinsko selo' was created on one occasion in 1993, also after the attack on the town, when we went to a village north of Karlovac (away from the front). There was peace and tranquility in those hills and I took a moment to paint that old house and property (of long-dead owners), which in a way, enchanted me in terms of painting. The war failed to infuse me with hatred and burden like many others. I talked a lot about that in Almir Fakić's documentary film 'Me and You' from 1995.

Yuliana Arles: Around the same time, you painted a portrait of Karlovac Mayor Ivan Benić in 1994, and subsequently, among other things, you gained international renown as a portrait painter. You also captured on canvas the President of Croatia Franjo Tudjman in 1996 and the King of Rwanda Kigeli V in 2013. Tell me, what feelings did you have during creating portraits of such influential people?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: As for the portrait and self-portrait segment, I have been working on it from the very beginning. This is again directly due to my grandfather, whom I watched from an early age portraying fellow citizens and family members. He later explained to me all the complexity of the portrait from a technical-performance point of view, as well as from the perspective of psychological analysis.

Portrait of Karlovac Mayor Ivan Benić (detail) (1994)
Portrait of Karlovac Mayor Ivan Benić

The first mayor of Karlovac in the new Croatia was Judge Ivan Benić (1938-2009), a longtime friend of my family, and I was also friends with his daughter Ivančica. So, I painted it from a friendly side (with pleasure), and as a demonstration of the level of my skills at the time (as a 4th-year student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb).

The aforementioned portrait of the then President and the former Tito's general Franjo Tuđman (1922-1999) was a formal commission from Karlovac County, which ended up in the collection of the Office of the President of the Republic in Zagreb. I didn't really enjoy anything (I forced myself to work), and it turned out that they didn't even pay me.

Much later (2013), I also received the commission from a representative of King Kigeli V (1936-2016), the last sovereign ruler of Rwanda. I was fascinated in a way by his rather tragic story, and all that had happened to him during the coup in Rwanda organized by the Belgians. It was interesting for me to work on a portrait (although only based on the material they sent me) of a historical figure, a former statesman whom I knew was at the end of his life journey and with whom another world was disappearing.

HM King Kigeli of Rwanda with the closest associates (2013)

As it turned out, he died three years later. I worked on that group portrait in pencil for a week in heat above 30 degrees. In the apartment where I am now, under a concrete flat roof, that temperature is much higher. My biggest concern was that my sweat didn’t spoil the drawing. But it turned out well, maximally in the given circumstances and conditions.

Instead of money, he paid me with the title of Baron and hereditary knighthood in the rank carried by both his personal friends and supporters Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela (1918-2103) and the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961). He reaffirmed this in 2016 shortly before his death. I am extremely glad to have documents with his signature, I think these are now (or will become) historical documents.

Yuliana Arles: This is probably an exceptional experience, to display on canvas, not only the features, but also the characteristics of a famous person. Tell me, have you thought in advance what characteristic features inherent in the aforementioned leaders should be captured in a portrait?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: Mainly to answer your question, as I have to simultaneously analyze and find the essential objective morphological features of the face. I also have to analyze, in my subjective way, the expression of character which I make through a smaller or larger departure from complete descriptiveness.

Sometimes I know exactly what the work will look like in the end, and sometimes I feel it only during the work. Basically, as in other topics, I am always somewhere between the deviation of complete descriptiveness and the complete absence of indications of key forms. And for me, it doesn't matter if I'm working with someone famous and influential or someone quite ordinary and everyday man, neighbor or friend.

Yuliana Arles: The years of your youth were very productive. At that time, you actively sought to declare yourself and, continuing the traditions of the modernist avant-garde, wrote in 1996 your New Ink Art Manifesto. As we know, artistic manifestos in its rhetoric are designed to shock the world community with calls for freedom, very often by revolutionary methods and an attempt to violate the status quo. For this particular purpose, the scandalous manifesto of the futurist Filippo Marinetti was made. Another example in art history is the Manifesto of Dada that was full of indignation and hatred of war. Tell me, what is the main idea of your manifesto? What intentions, motives, or views did you strive to state publicly?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: One of the important features of my work is both the theoretical approach and the analysis. Thus, as early as the 3rd year of study at the academy (1993/1994), I started making notes, publishing artists' books, and later in the 1990s publishing articles in local newspapers.

The first short articles were about watercolor and ink painting. Water techniques were my main preoccupation. Years later, some articles related to my Western approach to modern ink painting were published outside Croatia (USA, Canada), which in turn led to the publication of books that are in some ways collections of my theoretical and pedagogical texts. The reviews were excellent. As for the text I wrote in the form of a manifesto in 1996, it is essentially a personal program created as a part of my application for a Japanese government scholarship.

That (and other elements) led to my journey to Tokyo in 1998/1999. I did not write it in a way or for a reason like the modernists mentioned. Although it probably came from a similar urge to think about art, the state, and problems of art, and thus the society in which that art originates.

Some say that this is destruction, which in some cases is true because the old must die in order for the new to be born. In this sense, this artistic practice is in a way dissident and rebellious. It turns out that this is one of the few programmatic texts (the only ones in the West) that originated in the 20th century related to the New Ink Art movement. The original manuscript of the New Ink Art Manifesto is the property of the document (exhibition) archive, records, and papers collection (Aktenarchiv) in Kassel (the access number docA-97).

Alfred Freddy Krupa
photo by: Dinko Neskusil

Yuliana Arles: It is important to emphasize that you are ranked in the top 10 contemporary artists working in ink painting. In your artworks, executed in ink, even to the naked eye, one can notice the influence of the East. This is reflected in the smoothness and continuity of lines, in the succinctness and harmony of the composition, complemented by the expression of the inner experiences of a Western artist. Can you tell us what influenced the fact that you connected your life in a certain way with the mysterious East?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: Yes, it is quite pleasant to be ranked that way, given the criteria by which the ranking was done (confirmed exposure history). However, I am aware that every ranking has both advantages and disadvantages and is therefore not something absolute and unquestionable. But, OK, it provides some guidance in times when we are overwhelmed with information, half-information, and misinformation, when we have excessive production of content and completely arbitrary glorification or neglect of people and facts.

So, for me, this is the fundamental direction within the otherwise diverse opus accumulated over 30 years because I had different interests, but also because I avoided becoming what the Germans call a “fachidiot” - a specialist expert who is ignorant outside their specialty. The context of my continuous work in other 'Western' techniques, materials, motifs, and approaches gives additional seriousness to the opus of calligraphic ink painting.

As for the morphology of my works, this is correct, and if you look at those from the early 1990s you will see such qualities. I guess that's how my nervous system works. But it should also perhaps be mentioned that in the 1980s I had some experiences that are identical or similar to the experiences emanating from Zen (which in Japan directly influenced the formation of ink painting as we know it).

Alfred Freddy Krupa
photo by: Zoran Osrečak

Yuliana Arles: The rich culture and ancient traditions of the Far East have long piqued the interest of Westerners. Currently, more and more people strive to learn the depths of Western philosophy, practice meditation and Zen. Can you share your personal experience in applying oriental practices in your life?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: I should perhaps point out that the philosophies and spiritual practices of the Far East, which are directly related to oriental ink painting, were not something new to me because I studied (and experienced some) this whole area of various spiritual practices during the 1980s. Early on, I felt the need for synthesis, an amalgam of practice and approach, and thus of the Far East and the West, and the ink always interested me the most. In this sense, these efforts are compatible with current global change, with increasing cohesion forces leading to one humanity (as a fundamental and dominant identity) and where authentic artistic practices will no longer be known by ethnic, national, religious, and other labels.

When I was in high school, I participated several times (in Slovenia and Zagreb) in what is called an Enlightenment Intensive. What was that? An English Wikipedia gives a very clear explanation: “An Enlightenment Intensive is a group retreat designed to enable a spiritual enlightenment experience within a relatively short time. Devised by Americans Charles Berner along with his wife Ava Berner in the 1960s, the format combines the self-inquiry meditation method popularized by Ramana Maharshi with interpersonal communication processes such as the dyad structure of co-counseling in a structure that resembles both a traditional Zen sesshin (meditation retreat) and group psychotherapy. Religious teachings and philosophical concepts are generally avoided” (I would say entirely). In essence, it is in line with my thinking that an artist cannot authentically express anything other than what he himself has experienced.

Yuliana Arles: Dr. Jürgen Weichard of the Oldenburg Kunstverein called your art a bridge between contemporary Japanese and European painting. You also became an elected member of the North American Chapter of the International Society of Chinese Calligraphy and Ink. Considering your solid experience and deep knowledge of the Eastern worldview, can you single out the main features of the Eastern approach and which of them appeal to you the most?

Alfred Freddy Krupa: Yes, Dr. Jürgen Weichard wrote a short review after visiting my solo exhibition, which took place in 2016 when I was an invited author at the 32nd International Festival 'Sarajevo Winter'.

As for the explicit oriental characteristics, I would highlight the following: logic, dedication, skill, efficiency, rationality, minimalism, i.e., reduction (which is again related to logic and rationality), the skill of creating a gap that is pleasant and meaningful, not empty and poor (which is again related to knowledge of the relationship of artistic elements and their independent or synergistic effect — the question of a positive and negative space).

By this, I mean the Far East, but I don't think it's something the Far East has 'copyright' on. In the artistic sense, it is a focus on the possibilities of expressiveness of the line, and that which does not describe things, but ideas and the nervous vibration of the painter. Natural spirituality without a god (although this was damaged by the arrival of Christian Westerners with their norms in the 19th century as we see, e.g., in a change towards topics such as sex) is certainly what the great and lasting heritage of the Far East is. The reason for the Far East so successfully and unencumbered applied scientific (and thus technological) pragmatism and inventiveness is the synergy of the post-Enlightenment and the modern (essentially tolerantly atheistic) West and the Far East.

As for membership in the aforementioned International Society of Chinese Calligraphy and Ink, it came somehow by itself, naturally during the course of things. I have been a member since 2012 and participate in group exhibitions of the society (e.g., China, USA, and Japan) when I have the opportunity.

It must always be borne in mind that I am not an Asian by birth, nor was I born or raised in Hong Kong or anywhere in East Asia (and thus my perspective as a European is quite different) because if I were, then I would be just one of the army of more or less successful followers of Lui Shou Kwan and other early modernists in Asian ink painting and (in my opinion) it wouldn’t really matter. As it has already been stated elsewhere (to quote) I am doing something essentially opposite/different from Shou Kwan and his group, I reinterpret Western modernism in the form of the Far East ink art (Suiboku, from Hakubyou technique to Haboku/Hatsuboku).