Yellow Sky, Red Sea, Violet Sands

Richard Wollheim

  • Nicolas de Staël by Jean-Paul Ameline et al
    Centre Pompidou, 252 pp, €39.90, March 2003, ISBN 2 84426 158 2

Nicolas de Staël was an experimental painter. The first half of the 20th century abounded in experimental artists. Not so the second half, which abounded in innovatory artists of one sort or another, and the difference is that the innovatory artist innovates in order to give his work a distinctive look, whereas the experimental artist innovates in the hope, later to be confirmed or disconfirmed, that this new look will help him do better justice to his subject matter.

Staël was born in tsarist St Petersburg in 1914, the heir to a family of generals and higher bureaucrats in the Imperial service. His father, General Vladimir de Staël von Holstein, was vice-governor of the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul, where famous liberals had been incarcerated at the Tsar’s pleasure. His mother came from a more cultivated family, and was related to the composer Glazunov. At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917, the family was compelled to leave Russia, and they eventually settled just outside Brussels, where they managed to lead a life of comparative comfort. In due course, Nicolas, in defiance of family tradition, announced that he wanted to be an artist. In 1933 he enrolled simultaneously in the Académie des Beaux-Arts as an architectural student and in the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts as a painting student. The education that he received was eclectic, but at least as important an influence on his later work were holidays that took him in 1934 to Provence, in 1935 to Spain, and in 1936 and again in 1937 to Morocco. Wherever he went, he visited the museums, and immersed himself in the work of the Old Masters, but these travels exposed him to what was ultimately to be his most profound source of inspiration: the sun-drenched South.

On his second visit to Marrakech, Staël encountered a young painter, Jeannine Guillou, who was leading a nomadic life in Morocco with her husband and their young son, Antek. After a short while, Jeannine and Antek came to live with Staël, and, on their return from Morocco in 1938, they slowly travelled through Italy before arriving in Paris, where they took a small apartment. Staël never returned to Brussels, and in Paris he acquired his first dealer, Jeanne Bucher. The next year saw the outbreak of war. In January 1940, Staël, who had enlisted in the Foreign Legion, joined his regiment in Algeria. In May, France confronted defeat, but it was not until September that Staël was demobilised and rejoined Jeannine and her son, who had moved to Nice. In 1942 Jeannine gave birth to a daughter, Anne, and, in September 1943, all four moved back to Paris, which was intellectually more exciting, though politically more dangerous.

The war years were a period of true hardship for the Staëls, as for many others: work was very hard to come by, and so were artists’ materials. However, in Nice and then in Paris, he widened the range of his acquaintance with his fellow artists, and, above all, he listened to artists’ ideas, particularly to those which derived from Kandinsky, the Russian abstractionists, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay and the Bauhaus. Indeed, by the time he moved to Paris, he was a self-declared abstract artist. The portraits of Jeannine, with which the recent Beaubourg exhibition opened, and which reveal the influence of El Greco and Blue Period Picasso, were now a thing of the past.

Up to 1946, when for the first time it takes on a distinctive physiognomy, Staël’s work exhibits a number of characteristics which belong to the stark wartime and postwar sensibility, but it would be hard to predict from these well-made paintings any of the glory that was to come. Pride of place is characteristically ceded to a group of simplified forms that stand on long, sharp props, first cousins to the pointed legs that will shortly become an over-familiar feature of postwar British figurative sculpture. Sometimes in front of these forms there will be a dishevelled fence made up of wires or loosely connected batons, while an eerie, uncanny light shines out from the background.

In 1946 these mannerisms drop away. The high-heeled forms disappear, the batons become the primary constituent of the picture, and the fierce glare of the background turns into a gentle inner effulgence, of which Staël remains the master. There is a new intensity in the work. A key piece in this development is a horizontal painting, 142 by 161 cm, entitled La Vie dure, painted in October, and possibly a work of mourning for Jeannine, who had died at the beginning of the year in the course of a therapeutic abortion. The painting is monochromatically brown, drifting into black and brownish greens, colours to which Staël gives a brilliant luminosity.

In becoming the supreme motif, the baton also becomes the object of a new painterly attention. In effect, some of the batons are divided up into square sections, painted in thick paint with only minor differentiation of colour between them, except where some of the sections are painted in lead white. What distinguishes the sections are subtle differences in the weighting of the paint. Here we have the origins of the tesserae, which, in a few years’ time, are going to take over the work. Meanwhile, the paintings increasingly assume the character of architectural capriccios. It is no surprise that a painting executed in 1947 should be called Hommage à Piranèse. We are in the phantasmagoric world of Piranesi’s Carceri prints, in their later, or darkened, state.

In the years 1950 to 1952, there is another series of changes. In the first place, the tesserae are no longer a unit but the unit of Staël’s painting: the works are measured out in squarish blocks of paint. And, once this mode of organisation is achieved, we start to become aware of one of the most remarkable characteristics of his art: his all but infallible sense of scale. This shows itself in the way the format of the picture determines the size and number of the tesserae, or in the way the size of the tesserae determines their number and the format of the picture. Or in the relative burden of pigment that the different units of the painting are made to carry. Unlike some of the ‘thick’ painters of our day, Staël does not seem to have regularly taken the picture back to the bare canvas as he built up the surface. On the contrary, he appears to have gone on adding paint either with the brush or, more commonly, with the palette knife, until he got the different parts of the canvas appropriately loaded or in the right balance with each other. There is nothing in the record or in the photographs of the various studios he occupied to suggest that he was a scraper.

Second, the palette lightens. Dark, lugubrious earth colours surrender their dominance to whites, creams, lemons, pinks, and the colour that Staël makes sing: grey. The third change was presented by the organisers of the Beaubourg exhibition in a singularly dramatic fashion. In a room hung with seven or eight largish paintings, each one in some way a variant of the others, and all called Composition, the spectator was suddenly brought up short by the last painting. In nearly all ways it continues the series, though it is somewhat larger and dated not 1951 but 1952: it is entitled Roofs. Staël had begun his long march back into figuration.

Staël the abstract painter is a more complex, more ambiguous figure than the surface appearance of his pre-1952 paintings might suggest. In the first place, he was always a heavily representational painter. There is, in other words, no attempt to lose the sense of depth or to flatten the picture: there is always the exact opposite of Clement Greenberg’s idea of the assertive ‘picture plane’. Second, Staël’s hero among the great figures of the Ecole de Paris was Georges Braque, the supreme painter of the object. The two men had met in 1944, and for a period of time saw each other at least once a week. For Staël, Braque was ‘the greatest living painter in the world’.

A conversation of January 1950, reported by Staël’s friend Pierre Lecuire, does something to attenuate, or at least to account for, the seemingly paradoxical character of Staël’s commitment to abstraction. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a glue-pot and an ashtray, ‘here are objects, and this is just what I don’t represent.’ Then, picking up a pencil, he made it pass backwards and forwards from the glue-pot to the ashtray. ‘Now, look, that’s painting. L’entre-deux, what lies between the two. Braque paints what is around the objects, then he represents the objects. As for myself, objects, they don’t interest me any longer. I no longer paint them.’ Pressed as to what was left of the object in his painting, Staël said: ‘Rapport. Rapport. Rapport.’ These are the words of what we might call a holistic realist. Scorning perspective and resemblance as means to achieving figuration, Staël edged his way into figuration by first training himself to respect the painting as a wall, then by learning how to create an overall represented space. The depiction of objects came third. Objects could be depicted only when the space into which they were to fit was complete, and this was the point Staël felt he had reached by February 1952. The year that followed showed him his instincts were right. He ended the year by writing: ‘I do not contrast abstract painting with figurative painting.’

What is startling about Staël’s production in 1952 is its vast range. As well as the beautifully encrusted work that he continued to do in the studio, of which the great studies of bottles are the supreme achievement, paintings which are, with their overload of pigment, landscapes in themselves, Staël turned himself into a plein-air painter. Stuffing his pockets with tubes of paint, and carrying boards generally 12 by 22 cm, he ventured out along the Seine valley, up to Le Havre, out into the Ile-de-France, and he returned with landscapes, painted in thick paint with a palette of blues and greys and pale greens, the horizon low, skies vast and of intense liquidity, and the scene arranged in parallel bands.

And then, as though this venture into reality was not enough, in March 1952, a friend had tickets for a night-time football match between France and Sweden at the Parc des Princes, and he took Staël and his wife: Staël had married shortly after Jeannine’s death. Caught in the brilliant floodlights, the movements of the players and the contrasts between the colours of the different teams amazed Staël, and, in the next few weeks, he produced a deluge of small sketches, dark blues, whites, reds, greys, which captured the balletic high points of the game. They are works of remarkable figurative improvisation. But it is evidence of how far Staël suspected his exuberance had outpaced his attainments that when he came to paint the definitive work of the series, a vast canvas 200 by 350 cm, shown at the Salon de Mai, most of the identifiable traces of the human body had been eradicated. Poised between the green of the pitch and the black of the night sky are batons and tesserae in which the dancer and the dance, the player and the game, are merged.

The following year witnesses another re-engagement with the human figure, this time mediated by music, Staël’s second great love, in which again his tastes were broad. He loved classical music, he loved the Second Vienna School, above all Webern, and he loved jazz. The musical event that occasioned the second return to the figure was a revival in 1952 of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, which had not been seen for two hundred years. This time, however, Staël allowed the experience to mature, and it was only in spring 1953 that he produced two large, clearly figurative canvases, followed by two wonderfully ambiguous panoramas, one entitled Ballet, the other Orchestre, both 350 cm wide, painted largely in harmonies of grey. In one case the dancers and in the other the musicians struggle out of abstraction into life.

By mid-1953 Staël was an internationally famous artist. Besides Paris, he had had successful exhibitions in London, Berlin, Denmark, New York, and he now had as his American dealer the prestigious Paul Rosenberg, whose stock included Géricault and Delacroix as well as Picasso, Matisse and Braque. He knew painters, poets, musicians. René Char and Pierre Boulez were among his close friends. His greatest work lay ahead of him, but it did not require magical gifts to see that the end might not be all that far off.

In the first place, New York had by now established itself as the arbiter of contemporary art, and it was not an easy or reliable patron. Open in many of its attitudes, it found it hard to take truly seriously any new artist whom it had not been the first to acknowledge. And, should it turn against an artist, it had at its disposal a critical vocabulary at once so ethicised and so disjointed from the objects on which it was directed that it could endow its whims of judgment with an air of total authority for which it had to offer no rationale. Tom Hess, a spirit of the age (and one more free than most), who had previously enthused over Staël, still praised some works as adequately ‘severe’ and ‘difficult’, but in others he now saw signs of ‘sentimentality’. New York was announcing, as Greenberg had always insisted it should, that critical approval could not be taken for granted. Critics can undo what critics have done.

Second, the extraordinary life-enhancing gifts that had brought Staël thus far could all too easily, under the impact of either internal or external frustration, lead him over the brink. Finally, but unsurprisingly in such a force of nature, Staël was unable to separate the demands of his work from his private passions.

In August 1953 he bought a trailer, put into it Françoise, their children, Ciska Grillet, a painter friend of René Char, and Jeanne Matthieu, the daughter of a farmer whom he had come to know through Char, and whom he endowed with magical properties. For a month they travelled through Italy, revisiting Naples and Pompeii, but the culmination was Sicily. The great temples of Magna Graecia at Agrigento and Syracuse, the mosaics at Palermo and the constant transformation of brilliant colour overwhelmed Staël. He spoke of evenings when the sky is yellow, and the sea is red, and the sands are violet. He took in everything, filled notebooks with observations and notations, swam in the sea, but postponed painting until he had returned to France, where he finally cemented his dependence on the South with the purchase of a large house, surrounded by castellated ramparts, at Ménerbes. He moved in with his family in December.

At first, work went slowly, painfully. He was trying to woo out of his memory an art of recollection in which to portray a countryside that he already thought of as a landscape of ghosts. In the new year of 1954 work went better, and it’s possible that when, in February, snow covered the house, he was helped by the contrast between what he saw through the windows and the images he retained in his head. By the spring he had completed what was his greatest work. Drawing on recent experimentation with collage, he brought into being large slabs of red and yellow, of orange and green, which he then fixed in place with the aid of a rigid vanishing-point. In their sheer saturation of colour and their free-floating expressiveness, these works were unrivalled in boldness and sustained directness by anything that happened in the second half of the 20th century – though some may find a similar note in the late Delta landscapes (exhibited in London earlier this year) by the Californian painter Wayne Thiebaud.

The Sicilian landscapes were not easy to follow, and Staël sensed that, in order to effect the transition from a landscape of memory to one of perception, radical changes had to be made. These changes first evince themselves in some views of the Paris bridges. The colours are no longer saturated, indeed they take on a certain mistiness. The pigment thins, and the canvas is stained rather than covered. Staël applies gauze and balls of cotton wool to staunch the flow of the paint. By now he was convinced that it was only under Jeanne’s tutelary guidance that he could move forwards, and in September 1954, leaving his family, he installed himself in a new studio in the citadel of Antibes with windows opening onto the gulf across the ramparts: paradise for someone who was happy, hell for someone who was not. He had two kinds of subject matter: the studio seen from within, the Gulf of Antibes seen through the double windows. The last paintings are hard to judge. What is clear is that they are uneven, though where the road forward lay is not easy to discern. It needed patience and the careful observation of friends to work it out: both were in short supply.

On 5 March 1955, Staël paid a short visit to Paris, and seems to have been rejuvenated by two concerts, one of music by Schoenberg, one of Webern. For an entire night he walked through the streets of Paris with Jeannine’s son, discussing the future. On his return to Antibes he started on a canvas, 600 cm wide, entitled Le Concert. It presided in its unfinished state over the exit to the Beaubourg exhibition, an enormous cello or double bass, like a very pale pear, dominating the right-hand side. By now Jeanne seemed inattentive, and Staël knew that he had lost the confidence of the one person on whom he was most reliant: himself.

On 16 March he flung himself from the terrace of his studio in Antibes onto the ramparts below.

Just around the time of Staël’s death, a new form of figuration was beginning to attract the critical attention of Western Europe. Fierce, committed to centralisation, somewhat self-consciously anguished, it did not entirely reject the decorative, but it turned it more into foreplay. The principal exponent of this new art was Francis Bacon. How Bacon’s art would have appeared had Staël spared himself, and had it been seen in the bright illumination of Staël’s genius, is an interesting question.