František Kupka, Planes by Colors: Large Nude, Oil on canvas, 1909-10, 59 ⅛” x 71 ⅛”

Planes by Colors: Large Nude is František Kupka’s only surviving large scale figurative painting. Within a year of exhibiting it, he would never paint like this again, instead developing a personal language of total abstraction. In that moment of transition, I think of this painting as a manifesto, a way to address the canon of Western painting while simultaneously declaring a departure from it.

Born in 1871, Kupka was educated in the 19th century Academies of Prague, Vienna and Paris. He was briefly enrolled at the Académie Julian which, at one point, had William-Adolphe Bouguereau appointed among its faculty. Bouguereau’s conservative paintings represent much of what I find to be problematic about French Salon painting of the nineteenth century — objectified, passive female bodies offered for the consumption of a primarily bourgeois male viewer.  Despite the subject of this painting, I don’t think Kupka was simply intending to make an object of desire for his audience. When it was originally exhibited in the 1911 Salon d’Automne, Planes by Colors, Large Nude was met with revulsion. In their reviews of the exhibition, the magazines Fantasio and Mercure de France described Kupka’s figure as decomposing, with diseased, infected skin.

František Kupka, Study, 1904

It seems that Kupka began this painting firmly planted in the conventions of nineteenth century academic painting. This early study, signed and dated 1904, only survives in reproduction, with its current whereabouts unknown.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo, National Gallery, London

In a vaguely neoclassical gesture, Kupka borrows the pose of the figure from Michelangelo’s (now also lost) painting of Leda and the Swan. Without the swan, the picture is purged of its mythological and zoophilic content, thereby becoming an exercise in illusionistic rendering. The result is a literal depiction of the artist’s model posed on a chaise lounge in a dimly lit studio, which, for 1904 Paris, appears staunchly conservative.

From an academic standpoint, Kupka’s 1910 nude retains the studious rigor of the earlier version, with all the anatomical landmarks of nineteenth century figure painting indicated — the tenth rib, the xiphoid process at the bottom of the sternum, the olecranon at the tip of the elbow, etc — they are all accounted for. The crucial difference, of course, is the color. The title of the painting, Planes by Colors, explains the premise of the picture: each plane of the human body represented by its own color, as if it were a diagram. Presumably, if Kupka applied his color-coding system to his 1904 study, the result would be 1910’s Planes by Colors, Large Nude.

Upon close inspection, however, this proposition is a misdirection, as the planes are not single colors at all. In this detail photograph of the figure’s left knee, one can see the layers of Kupka’s activity through the painting’s presently cracked surface. Dry, crusty pinks are dragged over saturated oranges; yellows and greens are mixed directly on the canvas, and subtle yellow glazes nudge Kupka’s planes into differentiated surfaces. This is an exciting confluence of technical approaches for a painter at the turn of the century. Kupka draws from Cennino Cennini’s description of the Renaissance verdaccio technique, where the effect of flesh is created by layering pinks over a green underpainting, as well as from his contemporary Henri Matisse’s depiction of half-lit flesh as passages of intense green, as in his 1905 Green Stripe. In the crook of the knee, layered strokes of red, yellow and blue resemble George Seurat’s accumulated touches of pure color, while also harkening back to the hints of vermilion in Peter Paul Rubens’ hot shadows.

František Kupka, Planes by Colors (Detail)

František Kupka in his studio, 1906

I think Planes by Colors, Large Nude was an emblem of the space between the figurative realm and what lay beyond for Kupka, despite the relative lack of such painting in his oeuvre. Here he is in 1906, early in his career, when he was supporting himself as an illustrator. A painting resembling Planes by Colors hangs in the corner, perhaps on an easel, but already in a frame. Fifty years later, after decades of painting exclusively abstractly, the painting still occupied an important place in his studio:

František Kupka in his studio


Zorawar Sidhu, Last Day of Pompeii. After Karl Bruyllov, 2016, Latex ink on Backlit Film, 149 x 86 x 92 inches

Zorawar Sidhu was born in Punjab, India and currently lives and works in New York. He received a BA in the History of Art from Johns Hopkins University, a BFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and an MFA from Hunter College. He has exhibited projects with galleries and museums nationally, including solo exhibitions in the Museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Museum of The Town of Vestal, NY.