Caspar David Friedrich, Le temple de Junon à Agrigente, 1828-1830, 54 x 72 cm, Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte
In the summer of 1953, upon his return from New York where his exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery from the 10th to the 28th of March was a resounding success, Nicolas de Staël decided to leave for Italy. Here he hoped to find the light that, as with Dieppe, Gravelines or Ménerbes at another time, would allow him to give new life to his painting. In search of inspiration, he thus climbed into his Citroën truck with his wife, his children and Jeanne, the wife of the owner of the house he rented in Lagnes, and with whom the artist fell madly in love.
They headed for Sicily. In order to reach the biggest island of the Mediterranean, they travelled via Rome, Assisi, Tivoli, Ravenna, Napoli, Pompeii and Paestum. In a few days, they reached Syracuse, and finally, Agrigento. Founded in 582 B.C., the “most beautiful of mortal cities” according to Pindar, the famous lyrical poet of antiquity, enthralled the artist with its landscapes bathed in the bright sun. He rediscovered the pure, clean forms of Greek temples which were to trigger the most marvellous series that Nicolas de Stael was to paint in the months preceding his tragic death.
Upon return to his studio in the Vaucluse at the send of the summer, exhilarated by his visions of Sicily, the artist began tirelessly to draw and paint in an almost frenzied manner. So much so that his dealer tried to calm his ardor by asking him in a telegram “to not produce too many so as not to scare off the customers.”
Between 1953 and 1954, Staël thus produced nineteen dazzling canvases entitled variously Agrigento in Sicily – Agrigento and Landscape in Agrigento. By sculpting the oil paint with the help of a knife, he painted the dry, bare landscapes of Sicily as well as its temples and ruins. Staël “never” painted “what he sees, but the shock he receives” in order to express the strength of his aesthetic experience. And, in the present case, the shock received by his experience of the infinite he felt in Agrigento.
Paysage à Agrigente (Landscape in Agrigento), 1953, was the first painting Staël produced on his return to Lagnes, inaugurating with brio the fabulous series that concerns us here. Shown in New York for the first important exhibition organized by the famous dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had stolen the artist from the Knoedler gallery, the painting immediately appealed to the Chicago collector and philanthropist Sarabel Florsheim who kept the work as well as other masterpieces such as La Route de Vétheuil by Claude Monet and Tête de femme by Edgar Degas until her death.
Composed of transparent, almost mineral planes of what seem at first to be monochrome colour and which are, in reality, subtly varied, Paysage à Agrigente fits into a long tradition of antique Italian landscapes from the 15th century until today. As Robert Rosenblum explains in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, published in 1975, Mark Rothko’s painting, which can be compared with that of Casper David Friedrich, was inspired by the ruins of Greek antiquity, endowed with mysticism, religious feeling and the vision of humanity’s smallness in face of infinity.
In his Writings on Art, Mark Rothko tells of his travels to Europe and in particular to Paestum, in Campania, where the ruins made such a strong impression on him that when asked by one of the guides if he had come to paint the temples, he replied, “I have been painting Greek temples all my life without knowing it.” An opposite approach to that of Nicolas de Staël, but just as powerful and inspired.
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