(Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum purchase funded by Audrey Jones Beck; Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris)

František Kupka (b. 1871)

The Yellow Scale, ca. 1907

On view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston

Great Works, In Focus

Living color

František Kupka’s ‘The Yellow Scale’ is one of the most original self-portraits ever painted

František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale,” ca. 1907. On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum purchase funded by Audrey Jones Beck; Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Don’t know? Exactly. We don’t have to choose. That’s because everything in figurative painting relates to two things at once: the other elements in the painting and the larger world the painting seeks to represent.

It’s this duality that makes figurative painting such a many-leveled, complex art form. “Solemn things,” wrote the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, can be “painted gaily, overwhelmingly expressive things” can be “painted inexpressively.” You can paint a person “like an apple, and an apple like the Fall,” and so on.

František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale,” ca. 1907. On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum purchase funded by Audrey Jones Beck; Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris)

In abstract art, by contrast, Jarrell saw “the terrible aesthetic disadvantages of directness and consistency.” He was writing after World War II, when America’s abstract expressionists were busy conquering the art world, so he was courting controversy when he claimed that abstraction was “neurotically restricted,” and a “specialized, puritanical reduction of earlier painting.”

I don’t exactly agree with him — except when I’m looking at this painting. It hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and is called “The Yellow Scale.” The Czech artist František Kupka painted it in 1907, the year after Matisse painted “The Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra)” and four years before “The Red Studio.”

Kupka was one of a handful of artists credited with the early 20th century invention of abstraction. Like the others — Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian — Kupka had spiritualist inclinations. He was drawn to theosophy and Eastern philosophy. He saw deep links between music and visual art and believed fervently in the power of color.

To that end, he strove to dissociate color from its usual descriptive role. He wanted to let it be a thing in itself, expressive in ways that didn’t hinge just on the subject. But when Kupka painted his self-portrait, he hadn’t yet pushed that kind of thinking as far as it could go.

Which, honestly, is fine by me. “The Yellow Scale” has been described as Kupka’s “first successful attempt to come to terms with color theory.” But that is surely the dreariest, meanest, most pinched way to put it. Instead of reducing this astonishing painting to the status of a step on the way to abstraction, why not recognize it as a brilliant study of human psychology, one of the most original and arresting self-portraits ever painted?

The book, the cigarette, the physical slump, the aura of lassitude all rub up against the sunny intensity of the various yellows. Only the artist’s self-possessed gaze and a few outbreaks of sickly green on his skin mediate between these dissonant moods. The result is electrifying.

Kupka himself talked about wanting to bathe this painting “in a single scale of colors.” He succeeded. But color theory be damned. This painting is too good — too fully human — to be reduced to scientific speculation, spiritualist cant or even abstraction. It’s more than just yellow.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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