signed; signed, titled and dated 1953 on the reverse
Pierre Granville, 'Nicolas de Staël, le déroulement de son oeuvre témoigne d'un destin libre et nécessaire', in: Connaissance des Arts, Paris June 1964, p. 87, no. 160, illustrated in colour
Jacques Dubourg & Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures, Paris 1968, p. 318, no. 667, illustrated
Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Raisonné de l’Oeuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 461, no. 695, illustrated
Nicolas de Staël’s decision in 1952 to turn his back on the geometric style of abstract painting that he had pioneered so successfully, is without question one of the most important and influential moments in the history of Post War European painting.
Already widely acclaimed as the most promising young painter in Europe, he was confronted by the anxiety of not being able to convey through his painting the richness of his sensory experience of the world. De Staël’s early figurative works of 1952 seemed an extraordinary anachronism and a flagrant betrayal of the abstraction that had earnt him such praise, just when it was beginning to receive international recognition. Unlike his sudden change to abstraction in 1942 which had been prompted by an interest in its theoretical side, de Staël’s transition to figuration by contrast was gradual and founded upon observation and natural phenomena. As the artist later commented: “One does not begin with nothing; when Nature is not the starting point the picture is inevitably bad.” (the artist cited in Gindartael, 1966)
De Staël was a true aesthete who was open to and actively sought out all kind of visual stimulation. Although he felt a tremendous passion towards the figurative tradition of realism in which he had been raised, he also believed in the power and immediacy of modern abstract painting, and it became his obsessive, ultimately fatal desire to resolve the two. Beginning with his earliest figurative works of 1952, de Staël sought to combine the abstract elements of his own vocabulary with an altogether more compelling physical presence of reality. He began to paint directly from nature with renewed vigour and for the next twelve months travelled around Europe almost without pause on a quest to feed his hungry eye.
Executed shortly after de Staël returned from America where he had just signed an exclusive contract for the sale of his paintings with one of New York’s leading dealers, Paul Rosenberg, the present work exudes the painterly confidence of the artist’s mature style. He had recently established his studio in Lagnes near the Mediterranean and Fleurs sur Fond Rouge is illuminated by the brilliant light of the place, which seemed to de Staël “to eat up the colour”. The translucence of the composition here is dazzling, and as one contemporary commentator passionately wrote: “His Greys. There would be no light in the paintings, no atmosphere, no transparency…if it were not for the famous greys. These greys are quite unique in the painting of today; unique in their refinement and variety, unique in substance and depth, and unique also in the multiple ways the painter combines them.” (Pierre Lecuire, Voir a Nicolas de Stael, 1953)
Directly trowelled onto the canvas in thick slabs of pure, luminous colour, the bold and intuitive composition pulsates with the energy of de Staël’s hand as the vase of flowers bursts up the canvas. Furrowed within the surface of the paint, the sweeping marks of the artist’s palette knife lend the composition a freshness and depth that is poetically suited to the subject. Although studied from life, it is de Staël’s intuitive awareness of colour and line that orchestrates the composition here and lends it its explicit feeling of vitality. De Staël here expertly balances the chromatic brilliance and density of the crimson foreground against the sensuous purity of a white vase, out of which erupts a towering arc of flowers. Similar to the dreamlike ethereality of Paul Klee’s work, and perhaps inspired by one of the ancient mosaics de Staël had seen and so admired in Ravenna, the delicacy rendered individual blocks of floral colour here seem to flow up the canvas in a stream of overlapping forms, out of which a harmonious and unified image emerges.
Fleurs sur Fond Rouge marks the pinnacle of de Staël’s sumptuous construction of space through colour. The swirling, iridescent explosion of light and energy in the flowers against the pale violet background epitomises the artist’s acute visual awareness and his innate compositional facility. Through a surprising economy of means, de Staël creates a work of arresting abstract power and figurative beauty that reflects the dual concerns of both modes of painting.
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