For its majestic format, its sumptuous muted palette and its remarkable jumble of lines and shapes worked in large flat tints, Composition translates better than any other pieces from this period the mindset of Nicolas de Staël in the middle of the last century. After several years of wanders, trials and errors and poverty, Staël finally got a grasp on his own truth, the one he relentlessly searched for, between illumination and despair, constantly beset by doubts.
As written by Jean-Paul Ameline in the catalogue of the Nicolas de Staël retrospective exhibition held at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 2003, with Composition, the artist subverted “the rules of the game he had set up previously”, leaving the anxious spirals and arabesques from the 40s aside and “progressively [closing] the horizon of his paintings”. In this painting that required 3 years of labor, Staël managed to channel the opposing forces within him, and quiet his inner chaos for a time to create “surreptitious outbursts of light suggesting a secret vibration of the matter”. By Staël’s own admission, Composition did mark a turning point in his career: “I think one could say that my way of suggesting space in painting is totally different”, he confesses to Theodore Schempp and Georges Braque soon after finishing the painting.
Aside from the change of style visible in Composition intrinsically related to a biographical detail - Staël leaving a tiny apartment in 1947 to move in a building with a 6-meter long-10-meter wide studio under a 8-meter ceiling-, Composition represented the turning point that marked the beginning or the end of Staël’s life as a painter, depending on where we want to stand.
Whereas Staël had been frenetically painting since the beginning of his career, destroying as many works as he created, the year 1950 undeniably started a new phase in his artistic career. The very respected Georges Duthuit wrote an outstanding paper about him in Christian Zervos’s Cahiers d’art, making connections between his work and Yeats, Mallarmé, but also Giotto, Le Greco, Vermeer and Uccello. The Musée National d’Art Moderne acquired one of his works -a Composition precisely- for the first time. Also for the first time, Staël exhibited at Jacques Dubourg in Paris and enjoyed a solo show in New York – which made him run out of paintings.
Part of the former collection of Denys Sutton, one of the great critics of his generation and specialist of European painting before 1800, Composition also sealed the friendship between Nicolas de Staël and the first representative of his work on the other side of the Channel. At the end of the 40s, Sutton convinced Staël -he had met through former resistant and Sorbonne English literature teacher Jean-Jacques Mayoux- to expand outside the frontiers of his adoptive country, France, and conquer new markets. To facilitate the relationship with Francis Matthiesen who wanted to exhibit Staël’s work in his London gallery, Sutton invited the artist to stay in the English capital city for a few weeks over the summer.
During this stay, the author of Composition developed a fascination for this “immense city established on foundations that seemed totally irremovable”. The architecture and the light, different from what he knew on the old continent, also inspired him: “What a light… it’s beautiful, really beautiful (…) There is also Westminster Abbey, an enormous grey mass with an extraordinary green lawn bursting around it… Yesterday I went up the river to Greenwich, their naval school, a sort of grey-black winter palace on the banks of the Tame, with cold black stones and grey columns, lonelier than ever” he wrote on July 31, before rejoicing at the idea of Sutton and Matthiesen showcasing his work following an exhibition dedicated to 18th century drawing: “it’s one of the boldest things one could imagine, but he doesn’t seem to care and believes in what I do”, he added at the end of his letter to his wife François.
If the painter seemed enthused by the trip at first, doubts and uncertainty progressively assailed him again, as always. The postponing of the exhibition at Matthiesen, which finally took place in February 1952, played its part: “No progress in the London exhibition. The later it is, the better for me. I just need to sell paintings over there”, he wrote to Theodore Schempp on October 17, 1950, to comfort himself. And rightfully, since Sutton bought Composition during the autumn 1950.
Who could have grasped the importance of this key work if not the author of some of the best monographic books on artists of the former regime and the curator of fabulous exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts in the post-war period? “In the big and austere storage of a studio located in the Alesia district of Paris”, Sutton immediately recognized thais masterpiece in the “canvases standing against the wall [and the] many studies and notes piled up on the floor” (Denys Sutton, Nicolas de Staël, Signature, 1953). Composition is not only the largest painting Staël had created until then, but also the second largest he ever made in his career –after Le Concert from 1955 (CR 1100), unfinished and kept in the collections of the Musée Picasso of Antibes. And it is probably the one he worked on the most: photographs from 1947-1949 captured the years of labor Staël needed to finish this masterpiece.
Will we go further again, my dear Nicolas de Staël, after this halt and the immense pleasures you gave me, toward these edges where life and death tangle, that sounds and colors reach only to vanish?
Georges Duthuit, 1950
Ah the end, we will know.
At the end, we will know what it is all about.
At the end, we will know. We will know where these words in our heads come from.
At the end, we will unravel the thread of our sensations, when the reel rolls out, we will see the real color of things, yes, we will finally know what seeing means.
Nicolas de Staël
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