Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Monumental Simplicity: Nicolas de Stael

At first glance, I saw only a stony wall of dull, fragmented paint.

Nicolas de Stael, Fugue, 1951-1952 (detail)
But look again, something said.

Nicolas de Stael, Fugue, 1951-1952 (approx. 31"x39")
Then I saw the bright yellow band of color spanning the center, like light emanating through the "chinks" in the "wall" from some concealed paradise beyond. The epiphany of the yellow paint revealed the warm orange I could now see soaking the entire work, with greatest concentration on the top half, where it's both an underlayer and a glaze atop the neutral blue-gray marks.

Nicolas de Stael, Fugue  (detail)

A stabilizing band of joined gray-blue "bricks" at the bottom of the painting parallels the central yellow band; it makes a horizontal "L" shape that mirrors another horizontal "L" at the top (orange-gray vs. blue-gray again), and these two book-ending "L's" snugly contain the whole.

de Stael's Fugue with notations
The central yellow band is counterpointed by three clusters of whitish shapes (mostly, imperfect squares) ranged in pyramid fashion around the center; other shapes (at this point they're more like musical notes than anything else) fill out the composition, alternating between harmonious variety and repetition of color, size and shape. The roughly handled, layered impasto, with its insistence on the materiality of the paint itself, creates of the painting an emphatically "made thing" that nonetheless looks raw and utterly "natural" - that is, without a whiff of rational calculation. It's an intricate dance between order and disorder, harmonized (like any good painting) by subtle choices of design, color, value, and line.

Given a chance, this "wall" of paint becomes as complex, unexpected, and lively as jazz. Now the title, "Fugue," a kind of musical composition in which a theme is taken up and counterpointed by two or more voices in growing complexity, seems fitting. 

Nicolas de Stael, Rue de Gauguet, approx. 78x94 inches.
One of de Stael's largest paintings, this work is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Russian-born Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955) is a lesser-known artist today because he pioneered a radical, expressive, European form of abstraction in the worst possible place at the worst possible time: Paris in the 1940s and '50s, when the titanic achievements of Pollock, Rothko, Kline, de Kooning, Mitchell and their peers in the same realm ostensibly established the ascendency of New York/America over Paris/Europe as the epicenter of avant-garde art. 

Red on Red: de Stael, installation view.
De Stael was born into Russian aristocracy just as the revolution overthrew the country; he was orphaned in exile and spent much of his adult life in serious poverty before collectors began paying big money for his art. It wasn't lack of financial success but something deeper that led him to abandon his growing family, isolate himself in a spot on the Mediterranean French coast with a view onto a military compound, and hurl himself to his death on the rocks at the age of 41.

The abstractions like "Fugue" above originate in paintings by the earlier Modern geometric abstractionists like Braque, Mondrian and others. 

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1935
Mondrian was working out a new idealism in painting, where beauty in art could be reduced (abstracted) to its most essential and stable elements (here, the primary colors, white, black, and horizontal and vertical lines)  - an essentially spiritual quest not unlike Pythagoras's or Plato's to uncover ideal mathematical forms  - the basic "Truths" behind the shifting, multifarious world of appearances. 

Much more of a colorist (and more an existentialist than an idealist) de Stael also seeks and finds lofty harmonies and truths, but he includes the world - which for him also means the hand of the artist. He too seeks philosophical bedrock but without denying the sloppiness and even the ugliness of reality as it confronts us.

Nicolas de Stael, Le Parc de Sceaux, 1952, approx. 63x44 inches.

The color harmonies in "Fugue" and "Le Parc de Sceaux" above seem to pay homage to Corot's lyrical late palette; de Stael was steeped in classical and contemporary painting: Ucello, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van der Meer, de Koninck; and only then Matisse, Cezanne, Soutaine, Picasso, Leger, and above all Braque. “I am now getting to know, seeing and copying, Titian, El Greco, the beautiful Primitives, the last of Bellinis, Mantegna, Antonella da Messina, all of them," he wrote to a friend, "and wish for only one thing: to be able to study them for as long as possible.” 

Nicolas de Stael, Bouttailes (Bottles)

His work, though at first glance chaotic, is a complete absorption and synthesis of the history of painting and always balances original, spontaneous expression with the classical principles of harmony, balance, and restraint; it's always carefully patterned in line and color, harmonious and balanced, and it's made strange to us by its unusual unification of extremes of rough hand-hewnness and refinement - just like the man and his life.

Nicolas de Stael, Ciel (Sky)

His later work saw a return to figuration, and it's credited with advancing a European style of abstract expressionism called "Abstraction Lyrique," or Lyrical Abstraction for its sensuous, poetic interpretations of subject matter taken from the natural world as well as its overt painterly beauty.

Nicolas de Stael, Marine (coastal scene). That midnight blue of the sky!
These works take painting down to its primal elements. De Stael shows us painting as a tool for perceiving the essential reality of things. He strips painting to its most basic building blocks - handmade, expressive line and paint and color - without ever losing touch with its classical principles. 

A landscape by de Stael - lyrical and poetic.
De Stael dug deeply into a series of dozens of works capturing his experience of the raw, elemental nature of colorful bodies clashing against bodies, digging into the earth and each other that is soccer (footbal in France). 

Nicolas de Stael - Le Parc de Prince, 1952
Of these paintings, he wrote to a friend excitedly, "Between sky and earth, on grass that is either red or blue, there whirls a ton of muscle in complete disregard for self with, against all sensibilities, a great sense of presence. What joy! What joy!"

Nicolas de Stael, c. 1953
He kind of approached Modernism like a Rodin: monumental works visibly hewn from the raw material of perceptual reality, the final "meaning" of which is their very testimony to the human effort to use what blunt instruments we have been given to wrestle unprecedented beauty and meaning from the complexity of existence.

In color sense and approach, de Stael puts one in mind (and may help some make sense of) the kind of abstract/observational work one encounters in contemporary perceptual painters such as Ken Kewley.

Ken Kewley, Things Behind the Pines
Thanks, MFA, for getting de Stael back into the conversation.


  1. And thank YOU for such a tender, inviting, informative commentary about an artist's work which isn't intuitively obvious.

  2. i agree- great blog post on a somewhat (to me) obscure artist. thanks!

  3. Hard to find good relatively inexpensive books on de Stael. His work is a feast for the eyes. Thanks for the article.

  4. Si compiono in questo 2014 i cento anni dalla nascita di Nicolas De Staƫl, icona della cultura francese del dopoguerra.
    Alcune celebrazioni:

  5. Thank you Christopher for this article. Do you know which museums has paintings from Stael? I've had a hard time figuring this out.

  6. The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Is said to have a number of de Stahls and to reliably have something on display. There's a great writeup of a recent NY gallery show of de Stahl here:

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