'All my life I have needed to think painting, to see paintings, to make paintings to help myself live, to free myself from all the impressions, all the sensations, all the anxieties to which I have never found any other issue than painting. Today I am showing a group of paintings which, in all modesty, mean more to me than any I have done before' (de Staël, letter to Jacques Dubourg, June 1952, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., Paris & London, 1981, p. 171).
Painted in 1952, Fleurs rouges explodes from the canvas, its ardent combination of colour and pulsingly rhythmic oils perfectly demonstrating the strength of the unique and pioneering vision of Russian-born artist Nicolas de Staël. It was in the last few years of his life, from 1952 in particular until his tragic and untimely death in 1955, that de Staël's investigations into a means of bridging the gap he perceived between the abstraction which had obsessed him since the war and the figurative, and in particular natural, world around him came to true fruition. This resulted in a unique oeuvre, in paintings that fuse the energy of Abstract Expressionism with the traces of the world around us, anchoring his works in reality while expressing that reality in a deeply poetic manner. It is a tribute to the importance of this painting, this contemporary re-envisioning of the still life genre, that it was one of the works selected for his first major one-man exhibition in the United States at M. Knoedler and Co., New York in 1953.
It was during the course of 1952 that the figurative universe began to bleed into de Staël's paintings; his love of paint transformed increasingly into a love of colour, as is demonstrated by the almost Fauve incandescence of the colours in Fleurs rouges. The agglomeration of forms at the centre of this canvas, which perfectly convey the form of the flowers in their vase, also has the intense, self-propelling rhythm of de Staël's earlier abstract works, which had dominated his output since the mid-1940s. Like those works, Fleurs rouges has an internal energy that appears linked, as was the case in his earlier works, to his intense love of music: he was sometimes known to travel from the South of France to Paris for an evening recital. Gone, though, are the earthy, dark colours of those previous paintings, replaced by this intense celebration of colour. Likewise, de Staël has shunned some of the thick build-up of impasto that characterised those pictures; while the paint here is thick in places, and appears to have been applied in part by the palette knife, there is a sense of light and lightness, of liberation and jubilation.
De Staël was a trailblazer in trying to find a path that combined the abstract with the figurative, that reconciled the electric energy of contemporary painting with the tradition of looking, and with the tradition of the Old Masters too. In this sense, he was travelling against the stream alongside artists as diverse in their approaches as Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet and Frank Auerbach. The contrast with his American contemporaries is all the more striking, when looking at Fleurs rouges, as the only exhibition in which it appears ever to have been shown publicly was his well-received and well-reviewed 1953 show at M. Knoedler and Co. in New York in March 1953, which was attended by crowds of visitors. De Staël had already had a small one-man show in New York at the gallery of his friend Theodore Schempp, but that had been during his abstract period. His 1953 exhibition was larger, and included figurative works which had been painstakingly selected by the artist himself. The exhibition was widely reviewed, both in the United States and in France. James Fitzsimmons wrote a review, entitled, 'In Love with Paint': 'De Staël is an abstract impressionist in love with light and paint, which he lays on in thick vertical and horizontal slabs as if it were butter or putty to be spread across the canvas with a trowel. He has affinities with the Fauves (though line is absent from his art), but his real ancestors are Vermeer and Hercules Seghers. He is primarily a landscapist, though he paints flowers, nudes and bottles as well. [...] If nature is de Staël's source and inspiration, he never sentimentalises or lets it do his work for him. His paintings are not only sensitive responses to light, space and mass; they exist in their own right, and their existence is secured by the artist's passionate feeling for paint and for tensions which exist only in art - on a flat, framed surface' (J. Fitzsimmons, 'In Love with Paint', reproduced in ibid., p. 136).