Nicolas de Staël (1914-55) ended his own life at the youthful age of 41, but he managed to pack a lot of living, loving, painting and traveling into those short years on Earth: though he only worked for a period of around 15 years, he produced over a thousand paintings. The retrospective “Nicolas de Staël” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris offers a rare chance to luxuriate in de Staël’s work, with 200 pieces, some 50 of them never before seen in a French museum and many of them from private collections.
The torments de Staël suffered during his short life are not terribly surprising, given his life story. Born in what is now Saint Petersburg in 1914 to a Russian military family, he was forced to flee with his family after the Russian Revolution, first to Estonia, then, in 1919, to Poland, where his father and stepmother soon died. He was sent to live with a Russian family in Belgium and grew up there, eventually studying art, architecture and decoration.
His travels as a young adult around Europe and North America widened his artistic horizons and introduced him to his first life partner, the painter Jeannine Guillou, who was already married but left her husband to live with de Staël. Assailed by poverty, they spent most of the war years in Nice and Paris, where de Staël continued to paint and began to make a name for himself (he was exhibited alongside Wassily Kandinsky and other artists at the Galerie L’Esquisse, a front for a Resistance group) and befriended Georges Braque. After Guillou died in 1946, de Staël married Françoise Chapouton the same year. A lovely portrait of Guillou, dating from 1941, is included in the show.
Always working feverishly, de Staël periodically destroyed part of his work and started over in search of new means of expression. The exhibition clearly shows that although he went through many phases in his work, there is a through line of color and light that makes his work identifiable in spite of his fluctuations from figuration to abstraction and back to figuration, never in tune with the dominant trends (let’s not forget that figurative art was pretty much despised in the Abstract Expressionist 1950s).
De Staël’s form of figuration was his own, however, more suggestive than representative. A good example is his famous “Parc des Princes” (1952), which could easily be taken for pure abstraction at first glance, with its rectangular shapes in varying shades of blue and green, blocks of black and white, and touches of red. Look a bit longer and some of those rectangles might resolve into highly stylized soccer players fighting it out on the field. De Staël had attended the first nighttime match at Paris’s Parc des Princes stadium and found the explosion of color and movement on the field a joyous source of inspiration.
Those wonderful shades of blue, coupled with gray and white and black, went into many of the most appealing paintings in this show, one example being “Grande Composition Bleue” (1950-51), a work that reminded me of works by Rothko with its weighty forms and built-up layers of color that let those underneath show through.
A major change took place in 1953, after de Staël met and fell madly in love with a married woman named Jeanne Polge in the South of France. He was inspired to start painting and drawing (his pen-and-ink drawings are some of the highlights of the show) nudes, and Polge also seems to have been the inspiration for a radical change in his palette and painting techniques: out with heavy impasto and subtle colors and in with diluted pigments in brilliant shades. That summer, he took Polge on a road trip to Sicily along with his whole family, including his wife. The paintings of Agrigento and other sites visited made after this trip come as a shock with their dazzling colors and startling contrasts.
By the end of his life, de Staël was famous and rich, in great part thanks to the huge success of his solo shows in American galleries – his dealers were constantly begging him for more paintings – but two factors seem to have contributed to his decision to jump to his death from the 11th floor of his studio in Antibes: the withdrawal of Jeanne Polge from his life and criticism of his work by collector Douglas Cooper and other critics.
It seems ironic that today we see the paintings of Nicolas de Staël and Mark Rothko as contemplative and calming (the Musée d’Art Moderne goes so far as to offer yoga and meditation sessions in front of de Staël’s paintings) when both artists spoke of the “violence” underlying their work and, in the end, took their own lives. Just four months before his death, de Staël described his paintings as “fragile – in the good, sublime sense. Fragile, like love.” Mysteriously, the suffering of these two suicides is not always apparent in their work. Art as catharsis?
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