Nicolas de Staël at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris

“You know, I find that nothing has yet been said about this painter… We struggle, we try to understand.” Anne de Staël

A visit to the exhibition quickly reveals that de Staël did not develop an excessive vocabulary, but that this vocabulary took time to establish itself, let’s say, from the 1950s onwards. What a leap from 1942 to 1949! 

Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage du broc”, 1942, huile sur toile, 55.2 x 46 cm
Nicolas de Staël, Composition grise, 1949, huile sur toile, 81 × 100 cm, Genève, Fondation Gandur pour l’Art

The point here is not to take every iconic index before 49 in order to compare what is post and/or ante, there are books for that, but rather to take a core sample. Here, in ’49, we are still, but not for much longer, in what de Staël calls “compositions”. In the Catalogue, Nicolas’s daughter Anne de Staël tells us that “many things are called Composition, because of Kandinsky.” However, by using the very term “Composition”, does it not seem that de Staël is trying to avoid deictic identification (landscape = necessarily a landscape, whereas “composition” designates only “it”-itself, the thing itself…).

A quick exegesis (and therefore a possible error) is that what appear here (in 49) as trapezoids, indeterminate geometric shapes, triangles and squares, will soon break up and be recomposed differently, with triangles as vanishing lines, and squares, which Pierre Watt, in the Catalogue, calls “tesserae”, which, to be honest, is a much nicer and more mysterious word than “square”, and which I therefore adopt. The dictionary defines a tesserae as “in mosaic work, a small piece of stone, glass, ceramic, or other hard material cut in a cubical or some other regular shape.”Question: does de Staël paint squares or tesserae? Both, my Captain! (Mironoff). The question is not so factual, because, if we quote Pierre Lecuire, whose complete diary concerning de Staël is published in the Catalogue, we rebound as follows: “This afternoon at Staël’s house. […] He told me some things that were intended to be important statements about painting, about his painting…”. 1/ that the object, for no great painter, is important; 2/ that colour, for no great painter, is important; 3/ that painting is neither the representation of objects nor colour, that it is what is between objects, i.e. relationships. He took a pot of glue and the ashtray. He said: these are objects. This is what I don’t represent. He took a pencil and, passing it back and forth between the glue pot and the ashtray, said: that’s painting. The in-between.” And in the same Catalogue, under Pierre Watt’s keyboard, we read:

“It is by digging that Staël encounters space. The paintings of 1951 are essential in this respect. In them, the artist adopted a plastic syntax made up of small coloured paving stones, reminiscent of the tesserae used to make mosaics. Thanks to them, he was able to fulfil his constructive impulse, creating paintings that were more closed than ever, looking like walls (“Le Mur”, “Composition”). […] The tesserae is a constructive, architectonic element, but it offers the possibility, as soon as two tesserae are in relation, of creating a gap: an interstitial space that is the first real opening, and becomes the very object of the painter’s research.”

No doubt that it was with de Staël’s words transcribed by Lecuire in mind that Watt wrote his last sentences. Now, can we say that de Staël is the painter of the interstitial? That would seem to be a shortcut. There is a lot of space in de Staël, but there are also forms, and they are very present. His painting may evoke, without pejoration, an assemblage. How do you assemble the Real in a restricted abstract space? Even though de Staël apparently saw little fundamental difference between the latter term and his opposite: 

“Painting should not just be a wall on a wall. Painting must be in space. [I don’t oppose abstract painting to figurative painting. A painting should be both abstract and figurative. Abstract as a wall, figurative as a representation of space” (Alvard, van Gindertael, 1952).

Of course, between the artist’s statement and his production, there can always be time zones that distort, mental parallax, the intention of the intended, the will and the deed, and so on. And this is why de Staël cannot be subsumed under the category of painters of the void, or of space, unless we speak of full space. Because that’s what space is to him, always full, never empty, except — and this is very interesting —, in his drawings. There is an enormous amount of emptiness in his drawings. Such as : 

Nicolas de Staël, “Arbres”, 1954, pinceau et encre de Chine sur papier, 108,5 × 75 cm, Collection particulière

What a contrast with the paintings! We might say: Painting is fullness, drawing is emptiness. But did de Staël try, in vain, to “insert” emptiness in these paintings? Before coming to the second point, can we say something about the taxonomy of space in drawing? Take these trees. They are extremely elegant. Note the non-completion of the words; they end in the emptiness of the paper. What more beautiful research than the void, in action? This isn’t an unfinished drawing, it’s finished. It breathes.

The squares and tesserae will serve as flowers, landscapes and fields. We had to go through the landscape again, so here’s a bouquet:

Nicolas de Staël, “Fleurs”, 1952, huile sur toile, 147 x 98 cm, Christie’s

These flowers seem to appear, or rather, to be suspended in a very abstract environment, not to mention the fact that they are already very abstract. Chromatically, this painting is very daring, almost garish. Well, this bouquet is simply incredible. If we were to remove the green lower part that serves as a vase, we would be somewhat at a loss to identify these flowers as “flowers”. With de Staël, it’s as if the tesserae were playing with each other, almost independently of their creator: sometimes composition, sometimes landscape, sometimes flowers. After all, have you ever seen square flowers? The bichrome lower part — Coeruleum blue and gold —, is perhaps a table, in line with the abolition of perspective already present in Seurat in 1882 (article here) and officially declared in Matisse (La Desserte Rouge 1908), but this can be contested, as I have just pointed out, and even the other way round: there is no table in Seurat “Maisons et jardin”, 1882. So perhaps Matisse is the winner, from the point of view of the depiction of “objects”… Having said that, it should be noted that de Staël cannot help bringing painting to life. Even if it’s a still life, look at those tulips in the background:

It’s extraordinary. For de Staël, painting is (sometimes) fusion. And what if this whole painting was ultimately justified for no other reason than that, the moment when the still living penetrates the inert, when the red flowers enter the wall? It must have been a metaphysical moment for the painter when he arrived at that point. Finally, where are the stems of these tulips? 

What intoxication you must feel when you reach that point! I’ll say it again, it’s fusion. Spend three seconds on that last close-up. “What” is the flower? “What” is a wall? Answer: paint. When the living seize the dead. Right then. Here is a landscape: 

Nicolas de Staël, Paysage, peint sur le motif, 1952, huile sur carton, 28 × 33 cm, Collection privée/courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris

The tesserae have grown in size, and from “composition” via flowers have become landscapes. In this case, a stunning landscape. As are many of the painter’s works. One wonders what this red and black mass is. It’s certainly not a house, because it would have been built in a very unplumbed position. From 1952 onwards, de Staël produced a number of landscape paintings in the same style. It seems that he was looking for something… But what? Expression. Of course he was. But what? For the most part, I would say that they are impossible landscapes. One can hardly be referred to anything other than painting itself. In other words, I’d go so far as to say that the title of the paintings doesn’t really matter. Because, I repeat, a composed landscape — and I’m talking about the natural elements of a landscape in this way —, is not possible:  

But, you will tell me, a landscape by Van Gogh, who de Staël also admired, is not possible either. There is no such thing as such a sky: 

Vincent van Gogh, “Nuit étoilée”, 1889 [Détail] huile sur toile, 92,1 x 73,7 cm, MoMa
You have to be in a very characteristic state of exalted hallucination to paint like that. But painters have been talking about painting for a long time; that’s the subject. And what is painting doing in this doldrums of the world? It loses itself, it searches for itself and, above all, it asserts itself. And in 1952, de Staël was still in the same vortex (I’m not “modelling” the Dutchman’s personal life on that of the Frenchman, I’m just talking about non-mimetic technique and expression). But, however much one loves Van Gogh, one paints from his era, the era created by time and by the artist, like a duplicate, adorned with signs yet to be deciphered, and in a way that the famous Vincent could never have painted, as here:

Nicolas de Staël, “Sicile, Ménerbes”, 1954, huile sur toile, 114 × 146 cm, Musée de Grenoble

It’s almost funny (in the sense of bizarre) to see de Staël here evoking perspective with a few triangular shapes pointing towards the horizon; a very green one. “Funny”, because it works, even if we see the game, and the painter knows this perfectly well. What a distortion of reality! And the vanishing point, that big red tessera. Let’s take a closer look:  

What can we say? de Staël treats the background like the foreground, with diligence, a diligence that is both measured and wild at the same time — white lines here, spots there, fragmented blue outline, heteromorphic red mass. “Heteromorphic” is a word that seems to fit. de Staël was against purity, the well-done, the manner (as one does manners). The term is applicable to chemistry, biology and zoology. I would gladly adopt the biological usage: “BIOL. [referring to an anatomical element] differing in form or structure from normal or surrounding elements. Heteromorphic tissues, which were an objection, are not. They are deranged neoplasia or parasitism. All this exists physiologically (C. Bernard, Princ. méd. exp.,1875), CNRTL”. Staël’s flat tints with a knife are heteromorphic in that they always refuse homogeneity, they are in opposition, which we could almost call the opposition of the landscape, because we can see that it is not easy, for the painter, to restore, de Staël is not a romantic like Debré, who even painted on the spot with his feet in the Norwegian snow, as if to be sure of “painting well” what is; whereas it was, from the start, an illusion. So we could go so far as to say that that vanishing point over there is still a painting (I mean, it’s a painting rather than the representation of a vanishing point, because, by definition, the spectator is only left with his imagination since a vanishing point is not representable). And de Staël doesn’t get out of it, and that’s why he fought so hard, both against the expressible and against his own impossibility of going beyond a certain state of the painted — you are what you are, and you only become what you are. This is not essentialism, but it is quite clear that not every artist is a Proteus. 

“God if I could change, become simpler, simpler. But it’s all a struggle and without immediate profit.” (Letter to Madame Fricero, 7 February 1937, in Catalogue

de Staël, in 1954, is still struggling, and these false flat tints seem like plastic exclamations: “Hold the landscape! Take this trowel, this scratch, this stab! and leave me alone.” And finally, he scratches the earth. The landscape is saturated, exhausted, finished. 

Note that the strange effects of perspective are cancelled out by this immense green expanse, plastered halfway across the painting, like a sky. But it’s not a sky. These are fields, yes, but in a perspectival contradiction. So what does that mean? That hasn’t been the painter’s problem for a long time, although sometimes he wants to taste more of it (for example in “Cap Blanc Nez”, 1954; or “Paysage Antibes”, 1955). And this incredible painting of roofs and sky is the final proof: 

Nicolas de Staël, “Les Toits” janvier 1952, huile sur Isorel, 200 x 150 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris

For de Staël, the world is turned upside down, the roofs seem to be rising up, head-on, like the grassy landscape above. After all, once again, a title has to be given, and in the end it doesn’t matter whether we can recognise roofs here or not; this is painting, not a photograph. One might think that de Staël paints from above, but then this immense grey area cannot be the ground, it is the sky. So de Staël posits an impossible relationship with reality, with what exists, but this is a fundamental characteristic of the artist: his freedom. But this freedom comes up against this painting, which de Staël also considers, very surprisingly, to be a “wall”, as he writes (quoted above): 

“Painting should not just be a wall on a wall. Painting must be in space.”

So there was a struggle, in de Staël’s work, a crest line, which had to find its balance between wall and space. 

“Some surfaces lie down stretched out like floors of buildings, and certain ones are distant in a uniform way from a pavement. Others lean upon a side, as for example are the walls and [the] remaining surfaces collinear to them.” (Leon Battista Alberti)

“First I trace as large a quadrangle as I wish, with right angles, on the surface to be painted; in this place, it [the rectangular quadrangle] certainly functions for me as an open window through which the historia is observed…” (Idem

Once this balance had been found, it was certainly a question of transformation: replacing the wall with a window, which would guarantee space at the same time. But it seems that it was at the heart of this transformative struggle that the fight was fiercest, with only rare moments of breathing space. 

Refs: Pierre Watt & Charlotte Barrat (Sous la direction de), Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Exposition Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris 2023, Paris Musées, septembre 2023 /// Julien Alvard, Roger van Gindertael, Témoignages pour l’art abstrait, Paris, éd. Art d’aujourd’hui, 1952 /// Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting. A new translation and critical edition, Cambridge, 2011

Léon Mychkine 

writer, Doctor of Philosophy, independent researcher, art critic, member of AICA-France


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