The work of Nicolas de Staël (Saint Petersbourg, Russia, 1913/1914 - Antibes, France, 1955) typifies another possible route for post-war art - the pleasure of painting. In France after the Second World War painting is not only confined to vindicating its role as a medium for representing the experience of horror and human barbarity, as demonstrated by Alfred Otto Wols, Jean Fautrier and Jean Dubuffet, whose works mark a destructive reaction in contrast to European artistic and cultural traditions. de Staël goes beyond the division of war by tracing his own genealogy in avant-garde figures such as César Domela, Hans Arp, Henri Laurens and, primarily, Georges Braque and his compatriot, André Lanskoy. His painting cannot be defined as abstract, but drifts more between the experience and exploration of reality and is able to formulate a new figuration by arriving at the essence of forms through analysis. Over the space of ten years, de Staël's career starts with an initial admiration of the leading figures in the history of European painting (Tiziano Vecellio, El Greco, Jacopo Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, Jan Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Eugène Delacroix), and ends with the persistent questioning of the foundations of modern painting via Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh.
The use of the spatula as a pictorial instrument is one aspect that shapes, defines and personalises de Staël's work; using it to apply thick paint to the canvas creates his own exclusive workplace. Nevertheless, as this retrospective exhibition highlights, his oeuvre can be divided into two time periods - the first, beginning around 1944, is characterised by the use of dark colours to obtain a wide range of greys and the bold architectural structures that probe the intimation of space. From 1947 onwards, the chromatic colour ranges become gradually lighter (dominated by blue), and the thick and independent traces of colour start to take centre stage, with the concept of harmony presiding over his compositions. After 1950 he also relinquishes generic titles such as Composition and starts to portray a lived reality: La ville blanche (1951), Le parc de Sceaux (1953), La route d´Uzès (1953) and La cathedrale (1955).
His painting never reaches full abstraction since there is always a theme and strong figurative references, and his work encompasses certain dominant subjects that are not discernibly organised in series - landscape, figures (1953) and his own studio, developed once he settles in Antibes in 1954. de Staël's painting illustrates a new concept of contemplating colour, appreciated in works such as Parc des Princes (1952) or Agrigente (1953), reflecting the artist's experience of fulguration when considering nature on the surface of the canvas.
Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, France (July 2 - September 22, 1991)