Nicolas de Staël: Paintings from Museums
and Private Collections of Western Europe, United States and Russia
The exhibition displayed in the Alexander Hall of the Winter Palace (Room No. 282) is dedicated to the prominent French painter Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955). Proposed specially for the Hermitage by de Stael’s son Gustave, it shows 52 works which give an encompassing idea of the artist’s achievement.
Nicolas de Staël was educated at the Royal Academy of Arts in Brussels. He first tried non-figurative painting in 1942. In 1943, he came to Paris where he soon exhibited his works together with Wassily Kandinsky.
His earliest creations displayed, Compositions dating from the middle of the 1940s, evoke associations with rocks, lava eruptions and lush vegetation. Initially full of broken lines, Compositions later grow more organized. Scars and curvatures are gradually giving way to vertical and horizontal lines. After 1948, even diagonals are becoming more reserved (as in the displayed Composition in Grey). New hues appear in the master’s palette.
The artist is seeking expression in color constructions which are initially formed in one plain, then are built of elements which are gradually becoming more reminiscent of reality. Roofs, White City and Fallen Leaves (1951) are both abstract and concrete. The abruptly juxtaposed brushstrokes in Roofs are conventional painting. At the same time, this image of roofs looks natural to the modern air-traveling audience. White City is an exquisite colorful fantasy or ornamentation which wants to be a view out of window. Everything in Landscape with Sun (1952) in easily recognizable, including the yellow solar disk in the bluish grey sky. The landscapes Mante-la-Jolie, Lavandou and Sky in Honfleur (1952), though fairly non-representational, are inspired by real impressions.
Nicolas de Staël was an ardent lover of music. Many of his creations address performer’s art, for example, Musicians: Memories of Sidney Bechet (1953). The red, yellow, black and grey hues evoke jazz improvisations, symbolizing the voices of clarinet, double-bass, keys and trombone. The Fugue (1951) has two more titles, Landscape Construction and Painting. Creating this astonishing combination of painting, music and reflections of reality, the artist managed to stay midway between the impressions of the outside world and the internal abstract visions.
Reality transformed by the artist’s fantasy inspired works like The Moon (1953) where the lunar disk is astoundingly huge. Despite his non-figurative interests, Nicolas de Staël studied Chardin, Courbet, Corot and other old masters. Of his predecessors and older contemporaries, he admired Cezanne, Degas, Bracque and Matisse.
The exhibition is recapitulated by the creations of 1954-55, the last years of de Staël’s life, including Road, Pont des Arts at Night, Pont Marie and Ships (1954).
The exhibition catalogue has been published in Russian and French, with an introduction by the exhibition curator Albert G. Kostenevich of the Hermitage West European Art Department. The catalogue also includes articles by Veronika Schilz and the artist’s son Gustave de Staël and a selection of Nicolas de Staël’s letters.