Nicolas is free...
About the retrospective exhibition "Nicolas de Staël" to be held from 15 September 2023 to 21 January 2024 at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris.
This autumn's not-to-be-missed event at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris: the retrospective exhibition devoted to Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), a key figure on the post-war French art scene, opens on 15 September, and promises to be nothing short of dazzling. Twenty years after the exhibition organised by the Centre Pompidou in 2003, the exhibition takes a fresh look at the artist's work, drawing on more recent thematic exhibitions that have highlighted certain little-known aspects of his career (Antibes in 2014, Le Havre in 2014, Aix-en-Provence in 2018). The exhibition will then be shown at the Fondation de l'Hermitage in Lausanne, from 9 February to 9 June 2024.
This retrospective brings together a selection of around 200 works of art: paintings, drawings, prints and notebooks from numerous public and private collections in Europe and the United States. Alongside iconic masterpieces such as the Parc des Princes, it presents a significant group of works that have rarely, if ever, been exhibited, including around fifty shown for the first time in a French museum. Organised chronologically, it traces the artist's successive evolutions, from his first figurative steps and his dark, matte canvases of the 1940s, to his paintings on the eve of his premature death in 1955.
In the September issue of Connaissance des arts magazine, journalist and art historian Jérôme Coignard looks back at the life and work of this artist who lived solely for painting and refused to choose between figuration and abstraction. "Trained at the Académie de Saint-Gilles and the Académie royale des beaux-arts in Brussels in the early 1930s, the artist began his career under the auspices of a robust classicism. In museums, he discovered the old and modern masters, from Memling to Permeke and, in the Netherlands, Rembrandt, Philips Koninck, Hercule Seghers and Vermeer. Later, in Paris, he would work with Cézanne, Matisse and Georges Braque, "the greatest living painter in the world", to whom he would form a close friendship, as well as Chardin. (...) From 1942, in Nice, he made a radical break with figurative painting, under the influence of Alberto Magnelli. Against a backdrop lit by subtle modulations, his graphic, angular compositions are softened by a few curves. The memory of objects fades in these rhythmic writings that create their own space. In Paris in 1943, he continued in this vein. Blades followed strokes, sticks followed blades, with a new density".
During the Occupation, Nicolas de Staël could count on the support of gallery owner Jeanne Bucher, who believed in his talent and exhibited his works of art for sale in her Paris art gallery. His personal style asserted itself. Shades of grey, tight writing, strong impastos: De Staël set himself apart from his contemporaries.
"From 1949 onwards, the compositions became simpler," Jérôme Coignard points out. "Large areas of colour spread out with a knife or spatula vibrate with subtle modulations (...). In 1951, he 'broke up' everything and composed in small tesserae. As Charlotte Barat, co-curator of the exhibition with Pierre Wat, explains, "Little by little, around 1952, these abstract tesserae began to evoke objects from the tangible world. A small abstract paving stone becomes the roof of a house, or a flower, an apple, in a transition towards what critics have called a return to figuration". Probably because they needed a box in which to put de Staël: an artist's absolute freedom always runs the risk of being misunderstood, and therefore of making the price of his works of art for sale on the art market less galloping... but he didn't care!
His "inevitable need to break everything down when the machine seems to be running too smoothly" led him to produce a remarkably rich and complex body of work, "with no a priori aesthetic". Unaffected by the fashions and quarrels of his time, his work deliberately overturns the distinction between abstraction and figuration, and appears to be the pursuit, carried out in a hurry, of an ever denser and more concise art: "life is so sad without paintings that I go for it as long as I can", he wrote. The retrospective allows us to follow this pictorial quest of rare intensity step by step, starting with his youthful travels and early years in Paris, then moving on to his move to the Vaucluse, his famous trip to Sicily in 1953, and finally his last months in Antibes, in a studio facing the sea.
Staël's biography immediately created a myth around his art: from his exile after the Russian Revolution to his tragic suicide at the age of 41, the painter's life has had a constant influence on our understanding of his work. Without neglecting this mythical dimension, the retrospective aims to stay as close as possible to Staël's graphic and pictorial research, to show above all a painter at work, whether facing the landscape or in the silence of his studio. "Made up of swerves and reversals, research and ruptures, his career is not a quiet one," writes Jérôme Coignard. "In art as in life, Staël skipped stages. His career was meteoric, lasting a dozen years, with more than one thousand one hundred paintings and almost as many drawings.
An exiled child who became a tireless traveller, the artist was fascinated by the world's spectacles and their different lights, whether he was confronted by the sea, a football match or a piece of fruit on a table. Staël tirelessly varied the tools, techniques and formats he used (from the tableautin to the monumental composition), and liked to "work on" several canvases in parallel, working on them through successive superimpositions and alterations. Drawing plays a key role in this exploration, and a rich selection of works on paper underlines its experimental nature.
As Jérôme Coignard points out, "We admire Nicolas de Staël as a painter, but we know too little about his great draughtsmanship (...). The retrospective presents seventy works on paper, many of them exhibited for the first time (...). Sometimes, the graphic work even surpasses the painting, such as these abstract compositions from 1943-1946, with their incredible determination. Another highlight were the sketches he made in Sicily, which gave rise to the famous Agrigente aux couleurs de feu series.
An extract from François Lévy-Kuentz's documentary Nicolas de Staël, co-written with Stéphane Lambert and produced by Martin Laurent, Temps Noir, will be on permanent display in the exhibition galleries and broadcast in its entirety on Arte.
The exhibition catalogue (excerpts of which are reproduced here) provides an even deeper insight into the painter's work, with texts on his relationship with the masters of the past and his contemporary Georges Braque, as well as his relationship with landscape and still life. The catalogue also includes an interview by the curators with Anne de Staël, the artist's eldest daughter, as well as the full, previously unpublished text of the "Diary of the Staël years" by Pierre Lecuire, writer, editor and close friend of Staël.
Illustration: Agrigente, 1954, Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm;
Photo Annik Wetter © ADAGP, Paris, 2023