The Journey Within: František Kupka’s Self-Portraits

One of the saddest things I’ve learned in recent weeks was that as we grow older a yellow pigment accumulates on our retinas and changes the way we see the world. Colors fade, dimness increases, the blue sky loses its crispness. We’re stuck in a 1960’s Polaroid. And even though there are countless indignities to growing old, somehow losing the joy of a clear, summer sky feels like being robbed of one of our last consolations.

Could the solution then be to fight fire with fire and add even more yellow?

Looking at The Yellow Scale, František Kupka’s 1907 self-portrait, I’d like to believe that yes, that no retina could dim its brilliance. Almost monochromatic in its exploration of yellow-orange hues, the painting is one of Kupka’s best known works, and it represents a turning point in his career towards abstraction. Alongside heavyweights Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Delaunay — although years after the visionary Hilma af Klint — Kupka would be one of the pioneers of abstract art, searching for the connection between music, color and movement.

Frantisek Kupka - The Yellow Scale (c. 1907)
František Kupka – The Yellow Scale (1907), oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

The double meaning of “scale”, as both chromatic and musical, cannot be overlooked. In 1911, a year before Kupka decided to dedicate himself to abstract art, Kandinsky was publishing his influential manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. “A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life,” writes Kandinsky as if addressing Kupka’s dilemma, “cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion.”

As Kupka adopts a memorable and defiant pose in The Yellow Scale, verging on the edge of parody with its disconcerting boldness, it is yellow that shines throughout this composition and engulfs the artist with its light. “Atmosphere in a painting is achieved through bathing the canvas in a single scale of colors,” said Kupka. “Thus one achieves an état d’âme (state of being) exteriorized in luminous form.”

And luminous it is. With his head swimming in light like the golden saints of Byzantine iconography, Kupka reveals himself as a self-proclaimed god exhibiting his eccentricity. Cigarette in one hand, a yellow book in another, the artist leans back in his comfortable chair but his pose is anything but comfortable. There is an undercurrent of tension carried off by the blue-green hues of his face and left hand that disrupts the yellow rhythm. His left hand looks accusatory, like pointing the finger at someone, whereas the right hand sits limply in his lap, in lieu of a bookmark, and almost blends in with the book that it holds.

If you have any dissatisfaction with this portrait, there it is: the right hand, looking unfinished. Still, what a striking contrast it poses with the piercing left hand that jumps out at you. I should also advise you to look at this painting as a study, and forgive its lack of polish. At the bottom of the picture Kupka wrote that this was his second study for The Yellow Scale.

I cannot help but love the subtle dynamism of this painting, from the way it was cropped, as if in motion, to the burning cigarette down to its last smokes. And then a whole post could be written about Kupka’s face alone: the expressive eyes, Napoleonic nose, the tension in his forehead as if he’s thinking deeply, the corners of his mouth downcast in judgment or self-satisfaction, the dimple in his left cheek as a last irony.

 

 

It is generally believed that this painting was inspired by an 1855 daguerreotype photograph of the French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, whom Kupka greatly admired. In fact, there’s still some debate whether this portrait shows the Czech-born artist himself or Baudelaire or even someone else.  Those who believe that The Yellow Scale shows a depiction of the French poet get easily swayed by Baudelaire’s tumultuous life and end up enmeshing it with Kupka’s art. They see decay in this mass of yellow, illness and encroaching death in the blue-green tones of the skin, and warning in the yellow book as embodiment of Baudelaire’s literary vision of lust and decadence.

On that last part, I think we can all agree: it is a portrayal of decadence and eccentricity. But seen through the individualistic lens of the twenty-first-century, this excess is less jarring. At the very least, the portrait is intriguing, and not at all repelling; charismatic, and not sorrowful as Baudelaire’s last years.

The subject must have been of great importance to Kupka, who completed several studies for it. In another version, currently at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, our sitter is lost in reverie in his chair, having fallen asleep in the middle of reading a book. It is a very familiar and cozy pose, something to which most of us can relate. The range of yellow and orange is more subdued here, but incandescent, amplifying the warm comfort of the surrounding objects, from the pillow and chair, to the bathrobe and book. Unfortunately, the intensity of Kupka’s face is lost and his black-rimmed blue eyelids look as frightening as the eyes of a zombie.

 

Frantisek Kupka - La Gamme Jaune, 1907, Centre Pompidou
František Kupka – The Yellow Scale (c. 1907), oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou, Paris

Kupka, a mystic passionate about the occult and theosophy who had been experimenting with Symbolism in his early years, highlights a favorite theme of early-twentieth century here: sleep as a visionary portal to self-discovery. Whereas the previous version, currently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is showing his brilliance unraveling from the inside out, here we get the see the reverse. We can only assume that the subdued yellow palette from the exterior is eclipsed by what lies behind his eyelids.

The importance of looking within oneself had always been crucial to Kupka. Indeed, it was one of the very things that turned him into an artist. I mean this quite literally, for Kupka, strongly convinced from an early age of his psychic powers, earned sufficient money professing as a medium in his youth to pay for his art studies in Prague and Vienna.

But the looking inward was as much about discovering a new spiritual dimension (with the added benefit of paying the bills), as it was about uncovering his artistic vision, oftentimes these two overlapping. In 1902, at a time when he was enjoying a successful career as a commercial illustrator, mainly focused on satire, in a letter to a friend Kupka confides about the need to balance out destruction, inherent to satire, with creation:

“It’s true, I always feel the need, even if I often end up stinging with satire the rotten humanity, even if I end criticizing everything that exists – I also feel the need to make something by myself, to create something … I very well see how my work doubles itself right now: I express myself in a certain manner when I look around me, but I produce something entirely different when I direct the gaze within myself.”

By 1905, further along in his journey within, Kupka was writing to Czech poet J. S. Machar: “Thus I had arrived at that phase of life, where a person stops valuing that which happens to him and only measures that which happens within him… “.

 

Frantisek Kupka - The Book Lover
František Kupka – The Book Lover (1897), oil on canvas. Prague Castle

They say that every painter paints oneself, making it irrelevant whether The Yellow Scale is a self-portrait or not. But I dare you to have a look at Kupka’s other self-portraits and not become completely enthralled with the man. From the aloof reader withdrawn from women’s charms in the 1897 The Book Lover to the Impressionistic self-portraits of the early-1900s where he’s awash in light, Kupka’s scrutinizing gaze never disappoints. Even as his draftsmanship is gradually replaced by the bursting expressiveness of color, somehow he makes it all work, amplifying the psychology of the portraits with the pure emotions conveyed by paint.

Just like The Yellow Scale, The Book Lover is not so much a direct self-portrait as it is a self-identification. “The imbecile bookworm whose role I had been playing for a long time,” said Kupka about the painting without mincing his words, “is sitting under a tree in the middle of nature to complicate his life, as I often do. The three girls who are spying through the foliage are supposed to represent life, as it should be lived in practice, which I was quite incapable of.”

 

Two years later, in perhaps his softest Self-Portrait, sketched in 1899 seemingly as a dedication, Kupka demonstrates his draftsmanship with pen and ink in a way reminiscent of Van Gogh’s short, rhythmical brushstrokes. “Here my dear Mahler/ my mug in ’99”, he writes in his characteristically flippant way. Once again, the portrait has no fault of rigidity, as it flows both in line and composition. The nonchalant presence of a cat with its tail raised just behind his shoulder — as enmeshed with the artist’s outline as a bow or an accessory — turns this scene into an endearing vignette.

 

Frantisek Kupka - Self-portrait 1899, RISD Museum
František Kupka – Self-Portrait (1899), pen and ink and wash on tan paper. RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island

 

We get a clearer view of Kupka in his 1905 Self-Portrait where he paints himself as artists have done throughout the centuries: while at work. Here light flows concentrically from the sheet of paper on which he’s sketching, it embraces the curvatures of his forehead and slightly slouched back, until it’s nothing but ripples of abstraction and movement, like a pebble thrown into a lake for good luck.  At the center of it all, his pensive, scrutinizing gaze stares back at us — more sheepishly than in The Yellow Scale, but just as engaged.

 

Frantisek Kupka - Self-portrait (1905)
František Kupka – Self-Portrait (1905), oil on canvas. National Gallery in Prague

 

Kupka’s presents us with a slightly different man in Self-Portrait (1910) — rough, as rough as his broad, colorful brushstrokes. The complementary red and green hues of his face, tinged with blues and yellows, stir quite an emotion of contrasts and an authenticity satisfying in its unassumed complexity. By comparison with the vibrancy of his skin, once again his eyes look hollow, as if he’s looking within.

 

Frantisek Kupka - Self-portrait 1910
František Kupka – Self-Portrait (1910), oil on canvas. National Gallery in Prague

Standing outside, with just the suggestion of a tree behind him (I’d like to think it’s a cypress tree, as a nod to Van Gogh, whom he admired), Kupka smokes his pipe and reveals himself as a simple man with simple pleasures. We can easily picture him as having just stopped in the middle of his woodcutting, straightened his back, wiped his brow, had a smoke, and maybe pulled out his sketchbook to draw the outline of a fleeting idea. This impression of wholesomeness was supported by his lifestyle, too, as he was quite an unconventional jock. Kupka was passionate about exercising in the nude in his garden every single day, in any kind of weather, winter or summer, and he found this physical conditioning vital for his work and well-being.

 

It’s easy to get drawn into Kupka’s self-portraits; so much so, that you forget that he’s not actually in the room with you in the middle of a thought-provoking conversation. No, he didn’t shut that book, put down his axe or interrupted his work to listen to you. It’s easy to forget that he’s not even looking at you. With a mirror in front of him, Kupka just painted what he saw. And what he saw — or tried to see — again and again, was himself, always rediscovering, always plunging within, connecting the dots until the individual turned into the universal. That’s when František Kupka became an abstract artist.

10 thoughts on “The Journey Within: František Kupka’s Self-Portraits

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It inspired me to look him up. Incidentally there’s a self-portrait with his wife.

    Kupka may have been too skilled or talented for his own good, with his expertise spanning a few genres. He has some magnificent paintings, such as “The Lotus Soul” or “Babylon” or “Water, the Bather”. When he’s good, he’s really, really good. His oeuvre is just short of seriously intimidating.

    Your description of “The Yellow Scale” is about how I see it as well. I think the Baudelaire connection may be simply a physical resemblance, but perhaps some percentage of conscious association. I saw that same portrait somewhere else several days ago and it knocked my socks off then because of the yellow. It’s one of the more powerful portraits I’ve seen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you liked it, Eric. I think it was fairly normal for artists in the beginning of the 20th century to experiment with a lot of painting styles and embrace different art movements. It must have been like fashion to them. So I’m not entirely surprised to see so much variation in Kupka’s work. But whereas other artists were doing it because they were just starting out and trying to find their footing, with Kupka I see more of a conviction behind his paintings. He’s not just trying things out, he’s embodying them. So I get what you mean with “too skilled for his own good.” Still, he’s a delightful discovery, precisely because of his consistency and versatility.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rosaliene! That’s a great way of looking at it. With age comes more self-discovery, and the self-portraits gradually incorporate those revelations.

      Like

  2. Such an important artist I loved discovering during the retrospective he was given in Paris a few years ago. Although this presented his path towards abstraction, your essay shows wonderfully well the world within Kupka. Bravo for another deep exploration of what makes art and artists true windows for our world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Ingrid. I have a strange fascination with how artists turned into capital ARTISTS. Or what was the path that led to their masterpieces. That moment when something finally cracks and they figure out that Art is what gives meaning to their lives and they have the skills to give shape to their vision. It’s thrilling to retrace their first steps! It also makes me appreciate their later works better, in a new light, like following a road map with all these wonderful stops. The destination is as good as the journey.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Gabriela,
    I don’t know why, but I had a deep connect with this piece. So much so that I would like to call it one of your best explorations. ( That is what you do, begin with a painting, go to the artist and then comment on things beyond either ) .
    I had seen this painting before on the cover of Huysmans’s Against Nature (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/210255.Against_Nature)
    And to now read so much about in depth about the paintings, the seemingly unfinished right hand, or the face that requires a post of its own , was amazing.
    Also i must commend on the choicest quotes that you have shared here. Says a lot about Kupka’s journey.
    Thank you.
    Keep exploring!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Rahul! Reading the description of “Against Nature” I couldn’t help a few chuckles. “The Yellow Scale” is absolutely perfect for Huysmans’s character. I would read it now solely because of the book cover.

      I have seen this image on the book covers of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. On social media too, sometimes the painting was mistitled as “Portrait of Charles Baudelaire.” So there’s still some confusion in that regard. In any way, “The Yellow Scale” IS the epitome of decadence and I wouldn’t mind having it on my bookshelves.

      Liked by 1 person

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