'Little by little I felt constrained against painting an object in its own likeness, because, in front of an object, a single object, I was overwhelmed by the infinite multitude of other objects existing with it. It is not possible to think about an object absolutely as it is; there are so many others there as well that the possibility of expressing that one object in plastic form vanishes. So I have sought to achieve a free form of expression' (N. de Staël, quoted in D. Sutton, 'Nicolas de Staël: A lecture', undated).
Surveying the panoramic expanse of Nicolas de Staëls Nature morte en gris, one is immediately drawn to the sheer elegance and beauty of the forms at its heart and the different rich tonalities of grey which surround it. However upon close inspection, it becomes clear that the composition, revolving around the grandeur of the central 'bottle', has an archeological quality, as it has been laid over intense underlayers of different colours and textures which penetrate and pulsate through the surface. As one walks before the work, these glowing colours flicker in the light; the stark but lightly-painted red in the bottom right quadrant counters the subtle maroons higher up the composition while the flashes of white animate the forms in subtle and mysterious ways. Through a gradual synthesis of spontaneously-applied textures, forms and colours, de Staël miraculously finds a sublime compositional harmony and rhythm. He gives the subject complete clarity of form whilst also leaving the subject of its depiction to the imagination. What is clearly a still life of bottles on a table top, as emphasised by its title, can take on the appearance of a Mediterranean coastal landscape similar to other works he made at the time. The clear horizon actively encourages us to seek recognition in this rhythmic arrangement of forms, which might recall a nocturnal landscape from the South of France where de Staël had made his home, as much as the still life subject that it actually represents. This is a sublime internal vista, packed with brooding energy and intensity in the weighty layered greys and the flashes of rich colour that are thrown so much more into relief by them and which bring such a warmth to its overall appearance. What at first appears to be an abstraction clearly becomes a figurative painting and then drifts back to being an eloquent study in colour and form.
Dating from 1955, this work perfectly expresses the synthesis between figurative painting and abstract means that marked the glorious output of the final few years of his career. It was in March 1955 that de Staël tragically came to the end of his all too short life, however the previous years had seen him make giant strides in painterly discourse as he harnessed a new visual idiom that was very much his own and, in its ability to bridge the perceived gap between abstraction and figuration, would come to have a lasting influence. It is telling that in the exhibition dedicated to de Staël that is currently on show at the Fondation Gianadda in Martigny, the focus is very much on this later, more celebrated period in which de Staël managed to marry the energy of abstraction with the visible traces of his own world and surroundings.
In Nature morte en gris, the subtle symphony of layered colours and mostly rectangular forms of this twilit table top are reminiscent of the late paintings of Mark Rothko, especially in the left hand section which has been handled with such bold restraint, comprising only a few large fields of colour. At the same time, he has created a spiritual inner landscape that recalls the later still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi, in which humble vessels, often rendered with deft simplicity, are imbued with mystery and signification and become almost monumental. So too, de Staël has harnessed that sense of vastness and significance in Nature morte en gris, which resembles both his other still life paintings and also his expansive landscapes of the South of France, such as Fort-Carrée d'Antibes of the same year, now in the Musée Picasso, Antibes.
De Staël, a Russian emigrée since childhood, had been interested in art from a relatively young age and, by the time he dedicated himself to painting, had an incredible visual erudition, having spent a great amount of time in museums and galleries. He brought this knowledge of the Old Masters and his sense of being a part of a continuing tradition, rather than an iconoclastic revolutionary, to his own paintings, first in the abstract works with which he gained the attention of many of his contemporaries including the older Georges Braque, and later in his return to figuration. That awareness of tradition was all the stronger in de Staëls works during this period, not least after his recent exposure to the paintings of two of his great artistic heroes: Diego Velasquez and Gustave Courbet. He had seen the works of Velasquez during a visit to Spain with his friend the poet Pierre Lecuire during October the previous year; on his return to France, he had seen an exhibition of Courbets works. It is clear that a whole lifetime of experience, of looking, went into every one of his greatest still-life paintings, as R.V Gindertael explained:
'de Staël nurtured within himself the vision of a reality which he had not only perceived, but had experienced so deeply that it became an integral part of him. It was from this ordered vision that he drew the materials for his painting, wholly transforming them in the process. This was not a question of simply transposing forms; rather it was a translation of human experience in all of its diversity into another mode a pictorial mode. This was managed so successfully that the paintings, in their organic unity, were able to confront the world of natural objects and still preserve their own identity' (R. V. Gindertael, 'Introduction', De Staël, exh. cat., Rotterdam, Zurich, Boston, Chicago & New York 1965, unpaged)