As a child, during the funeral of a cardinal in Brussels, Nicolas de Staël saw an impressive funeral procession pass by. Parading before his amazed eyes were “the cavalry, then the artillery, then a mass of priests, then the cardinal’s coffin very simply covered in red and a quarter in black”. The future painter was only 12 years old when he described this colorful spectacle in a letter to his adoptive father. Already six years earlier, “before even picking up a paintbrush”, he said that he would be “as great as Rubens or Rembrandt”. Because art, without doubt, before being a matter of the brush, is a matter of looking. And that of this painter has never ceased to unfold with fury and rigor. It is to Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), this early orphaned son of White Russians raised by a couple of Belgian industrialists, that the Museum of Modern Art in Paris is dedicating its exhibition spaces this fall. His last retrospective took place at the Center Pompidou twenty years ago.
What an incredible career his is! Dazzling, like this artist with an actor’s physique and raw sensitivity who ended his life at the age of 41. Paintings under Cubist influence from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1940s; views or scenes with geometric stylization nevertheless allowing the sensitive presence of the world to penetrate in 1952, such as this football match at the Parc des Princes in which the players and the field are transformed into dynamic quadrilaterals of color; dazzling landscapes of Sicily or Provence where compositions of purple, orange, emerald, lemon skies shine under the Mediterranean sun in 1953; still lifes in shades of gray, blue or beige in the final period of his Antibes workshop in 1955. This retrospective invites us to admire paintings, some of which have never been shown (a quarter of the works on display come from private collections).
A hard worker
Nicolas de Staël is a workaholic, he doesn’t understand how it could be otherwise. Anne, his eldest daughter who knew him best, remembers this episode where, seeing the young brother of his second wife Françoise playing cards with a friend, Staël was indignant: “They are wasting their lives! » The painter who, like Monet, wanted to translate reality through his palette into “images of colored masses” tirelessly explores the space of the painting. Searching for his own vocabulary, Nicolas de Staël fluctuates between abstraction and figuration, often going against the grain. Moreover, these notions are not, according to him, contradictory: “I am not opposing abstract painting to figurative painting. A painting should be both abstract and figurative. Abstract as a wall and figurative as a representation of space. »
A tragic ending
We find ourselves in turn caught by the chromatic vibrations of these panoramas made of blocks of solid colors, carried by the reverie generated by the softness of flat surfaces in muted hues. Scanning the surface of the painting, the eye seeks and sees a perspective emerge. At the end of the journey – the year 1955 – here is a Lying blue nude , between woman and landscape, which appears; there Pisces or even Gray bottles reduced to their strictest silhouette but recognizable, like an anchor connecting us to the world. A world sucked into infinity, like these Seagulls flying towards the opacity of a blue-gray background. Exhausted by his demanding explorations of pictorial space, Nicolas de Staël throws himself from the top of his studio terrace in Antibes. The painter and his pictorial quest have become legendary.