Jacques Dubourg & Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures, Paris 1968, p. 381, no. 1025, illustrated
Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Raisonné de l’Oeuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 620, no. 1044, illustrated
“I don’t want to be systematically either too close or too far from the subject – neither one nor the other … I lose contact with the canvas at each instant, find it again, lose it again… This is necessary because I believe in the adventitious; I can only proceed from incident to incident. As soon as I sense too much logic I become irritated and swing naturally over to the illogical.” (Letter to Douglas Cooper, January 1955)
Executed in 1955 during the final months of his tragically short life, Nature Morte reflects the sublime resolution of Nicolas de Staël’s artistic quest. Remarkable in its simplicity of form and emotive fluidity, here de Staël’s dissolves the visual world of his studio environment into a layered matrix of expressive, fluid brushstrokes and suppressed rhythmical forms. De Staël had spent the last three years in search of a solution to the problems he perceived in modern painting, striving to marry figurative realism with the freedom of Post war Abstraction, and here, at last, he attains an essential, intangible truth. Infused with a feeling of substance, light and volume, here de Staël strikes a balance between absolute form and formlessness through all consuming planes of translucent colour. Recalling the abstract compositions of Rothko and Poliakoff in its fantastic economy of means, there is an intense purity to the composition here as de Staël reduces the still life tradition down to its instantly recognisable bare essence.
There is an acute tension here that emerges from de Staël’s obsessive efforts to reconcile the double reality of the world. Freely smeared in spontaneously overlapping planes of vertical and horizontal colour, the composition retains the same voluminous intensity of his earlier work but is liberated from a servitude to the deeply textured materiality of the paint. Through gradual tonal progression of superimposed colour fields, the individual swathes of blue, white and grey pigment seem to simultaneously emerge and recede within the canvas. Depicting a row of glass bottles in the corner of his studio, the composition’s freshness and immediacy ooze a supreme painterly confidence as forms jostle and merge without apology across the canvas. The inherent drama and freedom of the juxtaposed colour fields is brilliantly exploited here by de Staël through the prominent, intense flashes of burning orange that blaze through the surface in vivid, sporadic glimpses adding depth to the image.
The improvised yet inherently balanced planar evolution of the image here recalls some of de Staël’s most powerful and dramatic late Mediterranean landscapes, and like them, exudes an ambiguous yet harmoniously resolved simplicity. De Staël’s intuitive facility with colour and ability to fuse emotion and form within a single gesture reaches its dramatic climax in his final works of 1955, which saw the burning luminosity and vivid contrasts of his earlier palette replaced by an altogether more meditative intensity. The shattering blue light of the Mediterranean which had initially drawn de Staël to Antibes is here concentrated within a brooding and evocative still life. Like Van Gogh’s Crows in a Wheatfield, the energy and passion of the colours here convey a tangible feeling of angst and reflect the artist’s increasing sense of isolation and psychological despair. For the past five months de Staël had been living and painting in total isolation with an almost obsessive drive. As his painting gradually became more fluid, the objects he was painting lost their sculptural substance. “What I’m trying to achieve,” wrote de Staël, “is a continuous change, really continuous, and it isn’t easy. I know that my painting, behind its appearance, its violence, its perpetual plays of force, is something fragile in the good, sublime sense.” (de Staël’s letter to Jacques Dubourg, December 1954)
In Nature Morte, “de Staël approaches his spectator through direct emotion drawn from life…concealed by the apparent curtain of the non-figurative.” (Pierre Granville [trans.] in Exhibition Catalogue, London, The Tate Gallery, Nicolas de Staël, 1981, p. 7) De Staël was raised in the figurative artistic tradition and felt drawn to it, even when he was being hailed as the leading abstract artist of his generation. By 1952 many considered de Staël to be the most significant young painter to emerge in post-war Europe. His sensuously thick, impasto compositions had earned him recognition as one of the leading figures of the Ecole de Paris, who, in the aftermath of the second World War, had found solace in the evocation of geometric form and pure colour on canvas – a kind of European response to Abstract Expressionism. De Staël’s enviable success and originality of vision however brought with it the burden of being the standard bearer of the European avant garde. This is reflected in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1952. “I am thinking of being able to develop, God knows how, an increase in the clarity of painting and that puts me in a permanently disagreeable and troubled state.” (letter to Denys Sutton in Exhibition Catalogue, London, The Tate Gallery, Nicolas de Staël, 1981, p.14) Exposing the artist’s feelings of personal and visual frustration, his tormented disposition as he sought to bridge the gap between abstraction and figuration was to deteriorate over the next few years and lead to his tragic suicide in 1955 aged only 44. Ironically, it was this very feeling of turmoil and angst that was to nurture the artist’s most powerful and expressive work.
De Staël was a true aesthete and his visual awareness was profoundly influenced by his surroundings. Throughout the early 1950s, he had travelled with a quasi-nomadic urgency before finally settling in Antibes in September 1954 and establishing his studio there. De Staël began to paint in total isolation with unprecedented obsessive passion, and the works executed in the last year of his life marked another radical stylistic departure for him. He began to deliberately thin his oils with turpentine in search of a more expressive gesturality - one capable of reflecting his progressively fluid approach to form.
Within the turmoil and immediacy of the energetic brushmarks, a sense of calm emerges from the overt modesty and intimacy of the composition. Nature Morte is a beautiful example from this seminal crowning moment in de Staël’s career, in which the ingenuity and turmoil of his poetic vision are powerfully resolved. Within this composition of superlative balance, freshness and fluidity, de Staël finally achieves the harmonious tension and ambiguity he had obsessively sought throughout his career.
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