Nicolas de Staël is another in a long line of emigrant artists who left Russia in the last two centuries, enriching the welcoming country. Like Mark Chagall, Ossip Zadkine, and Chaim Soutine, de Staël eventually settled in Paris, but his route was very different. As a young child (he was 3), he fled the 1917 Russian Revolution with his family, who chose exile in Poland. After his parents died in 1922, he was raised by a Russian family in Belgium, studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts and architecture at the Académie de Saint-Gilles in Brussels, and only later came to Paris (in 1934).
His early portraits focused on his first partner, the painter Jeannine Guillou, whom he met in Morocco. She was travelling with her then-husband, and only a few days after meeting de Staël, she chose him as her life adventure. She stayed with him through the poverty of Paris during WWII, where they even had to burn furniture and tear out floorboards for heating, until her untimely death in 1946, when weak and malnourished, she succumbed to a complicated pregnancy.
De Staël’s portraits of Jeannine are beautiful, with their mix of thick and delicate lines, shadow and light, and the melancholy of the gaze, which leaves us wondering what she was contemplating. Later in life, Nicolas de Staël said, “A portrait, a real portrait, is truly the pinnacle of art”. His 1939 portrait records his first partner, Jeannine, forever. A timeless beauty.
Despite his love of portraits, his work explored structure, composition and form – using black and white, and later colour. Composition (1948) makes me think of Vassily Kandinsky (and his fascinating book Point, Line and Plane), the cubist work of Braque (a good friend of de Staël’s), and the appreciation of the multiple fragments, facets, shards of life.
The second makes me think of a skyscraper of sticks, fragile like a house of cards. Perhaps the reconstruction of Europe after the war, somehow working despite the fragility and hasty reconstruction. But this, too, is not yet the “de Staël” everyone knows.
On Dancing (1946-7) has a similar form and feel despite the thick signature oils. It also reveals its inspiration – the movement of dancers. Other works during this period are wholly abstract, making us wonder where his art will go – towards pure abstract expressionism, as was the choice of his contemporary in New York, Mark Rothko, or staying true to representing people and reality around him, in his unique voice.
Despite focusing for a while on abstract expressionism, unlike Rothko, de Staël chose a different path and returned to representing reality – being inspired by landscapes, football matches, bottles and other objects of daily life, and concerts as seen by his three paintings below – Parc des Princes Stadium (1952), Bottles in the Studio (1953) and Orchestra (1953).
If we hadn’t had the title and writings on de Staël, we could have concluded that the first painting was simply an abstract. I cannot see where the ball is, though bodies and legs I can imagine seeing; there seems to be a crouched goalie on the right. Bottles 1953 is more recognisable, but they could have been people on a pilgrimage or outing. At first, I took it for a church scene with bishops and a procession of a choir.
The Orchestra (1953) could also have been a wedding. Mark Rothko mostly went for “Untitled, “giving viewers the “right” to think whatever they wished. I like that freedom, but here I appreciate the titles – as I spend less time guessing and more time using de Staël’s vision to be in the concert, with the conductor and first violinist in the middle left and the mass of musicians and instruments on the right. The agglomeration of forms represents the orchestra – not a set of individuals but a type of composite whole with a multi-layered, multi-faceted voice. The whole is more than the parts.
De Staël stays true to his statement that the portrait is the pinnacle of art in his rendering of his daughter, Anne, in his 1953 painting – with its orange bent leg, the forward learning body and the energy of youth in the yellow and orange. These are framed and anchored by the patches of obsidian black and almost Yves Klein blue as the light catches on his daughter’s hair, the page, and the coat on the chair. We are there with Nicolas de Staël. But there are no features, and Anne’s head is lowered, so despite the colour and the youth, I feel a melancholy that echoes the portraits of Jeannine. Was it their melancholy or his that imbued the paints and determined the leaning, reflective form? Or both?
These paintings to me are “Nicolas de Staël”. Capturing reality – whether a person, flowers, football players, bottles, musicians, or one of the many landscapes he admired and captured in thick superimposing rectangles of oil paint. Beautiful. Once anyone sees the world through his painting, one cannot unsee it (fortunately).
De Staël kept asking questions, exploring the world through his art. His painting became lighter, more geometric, less busy or nervous. The port scene in Les Martigues (1954) is beautiful. The paint is less heavy and vibrant, so there is less of a feeling of mighty struggle between artist and reality. More of a detached appreciation, but still appreciation.
This style was the one he ended with in his Concert (1955), shortly before his suicide on 16 March 1955 after a bout of exhaustion and depression, apparently fuelled by a combination of the excessive pressure from commissions for his paintings, a meeting with a critical art reviewer, and unrequited love – he fell madly in love with Jean Polge, who refused him. He died, aged only 41, 1100 paintings and a similar number of drawings to his name, still in his prime.
His last work, finished in a three-day frenzy before his death, featured a black piano on the left, the cello or double bass on the right, and the orchestra in the middle, with a black cross announcing his fateful step, perhaps. Alternatively, the assembly of white squares represents the audience, and he is already gone, looking back at the music of life and us.
The exhibition Nicolas de Staël was on at the Musee d’Art Moderne de Paris (13 September 2023 to 21 January 2024), a wonderful museum more than worth a visit for its permanent exhibition with astounding works of Sonia and Robert Delauney, Josef Albers, Zao Wu-Ki, and Henri Matisse, to mention only five of the many reasons to go.