“The Yellow Scale” in Houston…

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Frantisek Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston…

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the great delights, for me, of touring across the States with a show is the opportunity to visit art museums from city to city. It’s a real interest of mine. For example, a few days ago I was halfway across the country exploring the San Diego Museum of Art, and yesterday I was here in Houston enjoying the Museum of Fine Arts. The United States have a plethora of superb art institutions, and it’s a pleasure to be able to spend so much leisurely time in them as a result of being all over the map, so to speak, on tour. Another perk of being a “frequent flyer”, museum-wise, is that many of them have reciprocal agreements: if you’re a member at one, you can visit others free of charge. In my case, my membership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is my ticket; I flashed my card in both San Diego and Houston and walked in for free. Sweet.

I first worked in Houston in 1999, when I performed as a guest artist in the Houston Grand Opera Studio’s production of “Orfeo”, which was a co-pro with Toronto’s Opera Atelier. I returned to Houston again in 2001 to perform in the Houston Grand Opera mainstage production of “The Coronation of Poppea”, again a collaboration with Opera Atelier. Eight years later, in 2009, I was back in Houston, that time at the Hobby Center, with the “Mary Poppins” tour. And once again, this week, I’ve returned to the Hobby Center with the new tour of “Jekyll and Hyde”. And one of the many reasons that I’m pleased to be back in the city is the Museum of Fine Arts.

Detail of (superb) head and hand…

It was very interesting to visit this great museum once more. Art, of course, speaks to one differently at different times and so I’m always intrigued to revisit a museum and clock how I respond to the works. There are so many arresting pieces in the MFA – I could cite many that struck me anew, but let me start with this spectacular work by Frantisek Kupka entitled “The Yellow Scale”. Kupka, by the way, is an artist that I could have told you absolutely nothing about until yesterday, even though I absolutely remember this picture  from previous visits. Perhaps one of the perks of writing about something is that it occasionally makes you do a little research. I have now seen many more works by Kupka online and have found more pictures that I am really intrigued by – some of which I’ll be able to visit, in person, in different cities in the upcoming months. Kupka (1871-1957) was a Czeck painter and pioneer of abstract painting, believing that color, like music, was capable of evoking profound feeling. I can attest to the fact: The Yellow Scale is in a large gallery, full of works, but the second you enter the room your eye is drawn to it alone – like a magnet. It literally seems to be lit from behind. It glows. I looked at for a long time: from a distance, then up as close as I could get, then once again from a distance.

From the Houston Museum of Fine Art’s website:

Although it is provocative to view The Yellow Scale as a self-portrait, the true subject of this riveting work is the color yellow. The intense hues combine with František Kupka’s confident gaze, the book in one hand, cigarette in the other, to convey a strong sense of the artist’s personality.

Kupka was an eccentric, sensual man with a lifelong fascination for spiritualism and the occult. Though he never completely abandoned naturalistic representation, he was one of the pioneers in developing Abstract painting early in the 20th century. Kupka explored philosophically and scientifically the nature of color—its unity and total effect on a work of art. Beginning with one color, Kupka played out its full scale and range, which for him translated into a work with a spiritual quality. “Atmosphere in a painting is achieved through bathing the canvas in a single scale of colors,” he said. “Thus one achieves an état d’âme (state of being) exteriorized in luminous form.” 

Of course, there is nothing like seeing a painting in person: color, scale, immediacy, plus the fact that one is actually in the presence of the original work of art – the actual canvas – and standing in the same physical relation to the work that the artist did. It’s always a thrill. Nonetheless, I hope these rudimentary iPhone snaps will give you some sense of the gripping power of this brilliant portrait. Look at that face: grass green and mauve!

Detail of Kupka’s brilliant self-portrait…

Frantisek Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale”, c. 1907.