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“What I am trying for is a continuous renewal, really continuous, and it is not easy. I know what my painting is beneath its appearances, its violence, its perpetual games of power. It is a fragile thing in the good, in the sublime sense. It is as fragile as love” – Nicolas de Staël
“For de Staël, painting is essentially a vital medium in which the life of forms is captured and embodied. The elements of these forms – that is to say, the contours, surfaces, colour-planes, space-defining values and other visual and tactile elements – are simultaneously the materials of his craft and its very spirit: in a word, its “poetics”. In this poetics, the problems of representation and those of abstraction are not contradictory” – Roger van der Gindertael
A symphony of colour, form and movement, Parc des Princes is one of the great masterpieces of Nicolas de Staël’s career. It was painted in 1952 and has been held in his family’s private collection since his death just three years later. Vast in scale and ambition, it represents the peak of de Staël’s achievement and a critical moment in the story of Western post-war art. The painting made its debut at the Salon de mai in 1952, and was a highlight of the most significant exhibitions of de Staël’s work over the next half-century: his first New York solo show at Knoedler Gallery in March 1953; his posthumous surveys at the Palais de Tokyo in 1956 and the Kunsthalle Bern in 1957; and his major retrospectives at Tate Modern in 1981, the Museo Reina Sofía in 1991, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2003, for whose catalogue it graced the cover.
On 26 March 1952, de Staël and his wife watched a historic football match between France and Sweden at Paris’s Parc des Princes stadium. Enthused by the spectacle of athletic vigour and saturated, floodlit colour, the artist immediately embarked on a series of twenty-five ‘footballer’ paintings. While most of these are small, intense canvases, Parc des Princes is monumental. Spanning three-and-a-half metres in width, its massive bars and planes of oil paint – teals, malachites, sky blues, reds, electric whites and rich blacks – are dragged into a mural-sized nocturne that echoes the great history paintings of Uccello, Delacroix or Géricault. Synthesising abstraction and figuration, the painting operates both as a lyrical arrangement of shapes on a flat surface and as a representation of real space. De Staël conveys the match’s soaring bodies and bright stadium with grandeur and economy, fusing the excitement of the beautiful game with the physical action of painting itself. A depiction of a modern scene in an avant-garde idiom, the painting also exists in dialogue with the art of the past, reconciling de Staël’s respect for the Old Masters with his quest for a novel form of painterly expression.
That night in March 1952 was a crucial juncture for de Staël. Having worked in an almost entirely abstract mode for much of the preceding decade, he was in the process of gradually reincorporating figuration into his paintings. The football match, with its vivid colours, roaring noise and ecstatic motion, catalysed the new language he had been moving towards. As André Chastel has observed, ‘Staël loved ... the “synesthetic” and complex moment when, in the landscape, in a match, in a concert, all kinds of scores intersect, collide, and combine’ (A. Chastel, ‘Présentation par André Chastel’, Nicolas de Staël, Paris 1968, p. 20). In a letter to his friend René Char a fortnight after the match, the artist’s excitement remained at fever pitch. ‘My dear René,’ he began, ‘Thank you for your note, you are an angel, just like the boys who play in the Parc des Princes each evening … I think of you often. When you come back we will go and watch some matches together. It’s absolutely marvellous. No one there is playing to win, except in rare moments of nervousness which cut you to the quick. Between sky and earth, on the red or blue grass, an acrobatic tonne of muscles flies in abandon, forgetting itself entirely in the paradoxical concentration that this requires. What joy! René, what joy! Anyway, I’ve put the whole French and Swedish teams to work, and a bit of progress starts to be made. If I were to find a space as big as the Rue Gauguet, I would set off on two hundred small canvases so that the colour could sing like the posters on the motorway out of Paris’ (N. de Staël, Letter to René Char, 10 April 1952, in F. de Staël, ed., Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de l’œuvre peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 975).
When the poet Pierre Lecuire visited de Staël at his Rue Gauguet atelier in early April, he found a scene of heated activity. ‘His entire studio was cluttered with drafts of all sizes, inspired by this spectacle: here the captain of the French team, there the parade of players on the pitch, there the extraordinary scissor-kick of a player almost falling; everything, as if aflame, in chords of blue and red, skies, men articulated violently, localised and general movement, greens, yellows, a kind of “conquest of the air”’ (P. Lecuire, ‘Journal des années Staël’, 6 April 1952, in Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 2003, p. 122). Not only far larger but also more sonorous and cooler in tone than the other ‘footballers’ canvases, Parc des Princes was likely completed after the initial burst of energy that engendered the smaller works in the series. It distils their compact verve and his multi-sensory experience of the match into a lucid, orchestral sweep of geometric form.
It was clearly not just the stadium’s tumultuous colour that delighted de Staël, but also the heroic exertion of the players, that ‘acrobatic tonne of muscles’ who together enter a Zen-like state of self-abandon and total presence when immersed in the game. Just such a duality can be said to characterise Parc des Princes, which at once depicts a subject and attains a new, musical dimension through the dance of shapes that makes up its surface. The creation of such a colossal work was an athletic performance for the artist himself, requiring great physical strength as well as an intuitive command of pictorial construction. De Staël used a huge sheet of metal in place of his usual palette knife, pulling heavy loads of paint across his canvas to produce blocks, facets and blurs of hue: a technique not unlike the ‘squeegee’ method Gerhard Richter would begin using some three decades later.
Born in St Petersburg in 1914 to an aristocratic family and forced to flee Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, de Staël led an itinerant existence from a young age. His early travels encompassed Holland, where he discovered Vermeer, Seghers, Hals and Rembrandt, and France, where he became aware of Cézanne, Matisse, Soutine and Georges Braque, who would later become a friend. By the time de Staël settled in Paris in 1938, he had received a rich art-historical education. Following a stint in the studio of Fernand Léger, his friendships with members of the Parisian avant-garde, including Sonia Delaunay, Le Corbusier and Jean Arp, encouraged his tendencies towards abstract work. He began to develop a singular technique, creating heavily built-up surfaces by applying oil paint with a palette knife. His status as a rising star was confirmed in 1944 with a group show at Galerie Jeanne Bucher, which included his work alongside that of the pioneering elder abstractionists Wassily Kandinsky and César Domela. Just as soon as he had seemingly consolidated his abstract style, however, from around 1949 de Staël began to explore figuration once more. ‘I do not set up abstract painting in opposition to figurative’, he later explained. ‘A painting should be both abstract and figurative: abstract to the extent that it is a flat surface, figurative to the extent that it is a representation of space’ (N. de Staël, in J. Alvard & R. Van Gindertael, Témoignages pour l’art abstrait, Paris, Éditions Art d’aujourd’hui, 1952, unpaged).
A key point in de Staël’s journey towards the ‘footballers’ series was the large-scale canvas Les Toits (The Roofs) (1951-52, Centre Georges Pompidou), which displays a tiled landscape of blacks and greys beneath an upper half suggestive of the sky. Departing from the pure abstraction of previous works, which were often simply titled Composition, Les Toits denotative title plainly offers the work up for a figurative reading. Already, this painting sees de Staël making virtuosic use of overlaid colour: warm yellowish tones offset cooler blue-greys, while one dark ‘roof’ has a red halo such that weightless, Rothko-esque light glimmers almost impossibly from the heavy layers of paint. The pigment’s thickness both competes with and emphasises the brilliance of the pictorial surface. By the time this hybrid idiom reached its full flowering in Parc des Princes, De Staël was neither ‘recreating’ nature in paint nor merely tessellating and weighing areas of colour, but was able to employ paint in its twofold existence to create a rich visual metaphor for his experience of the real world. Transposing the speed, force and colour of the football match into a mosaic-like tableau of interacting shapes and tones, Parc des Princes marks the brilliant zenith of this approach.
Although fired with direct inspiration for the ‘footballers’, de Staël was no en plein air Impressionist. He worked from recollection and reflection, engaging totally with his subject but always at the remove of his studio. His aim was less to convey an event unmediated than to convey that event’s impact on himself. Much as they bring together ostensibly opposed abstract and figurative realms, his paintings also seamlessly fuse feeling and thought: they radiate a passionate intensity through precise, considered execution. A 1936 letter to his adoptive mother, alive with the young de Staël’s love for the Old Masters, already exhibits the unique pairing of analytical and romantic outlooks that would define his mature painting. ‘One has to find some explanation for why one finds beautiful that which is beautiful – a technical explanation’, he writes. ‘One absolutely must know the laws of colour, know exactly why Van Gogh’s apples at the Hague, painted in decidedly foul local colours, seem so splendid, why Delacroix slashed his decorative ceiling nudes with rays of green and yet these nudes seem perfect and the flesh tones brilliant, why Veronese, Velázquez, Frans Hals all used more than 27 blacks and as many whites, why Van Gogh committed suicide, Delacroix died hating himself and Hals became a drunkard in despair – why? What were the reasons? For one small canvas of Van Gogh’s in the Hague Museum we have two pages of his notes on its orchestration. Each colour has its reason’ (Letter from Nicolas de Staël to Mme. Fricero, 30 November 1936, in F. de Staël, ed., Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de l’œuvre peint, Neuchâtel 1997, pp. 798-799).
De Staël’s emotive response to the works of his forebears – and his fascination with these artists as tortured souls – was not at odds with instructive study of their practical workings. He felt that beauty could be learnt from and understood. Indeed, it might not be too fanciful to see lessons from Hals’s ‘27 blacks and as many whites’ in Parc des Princes, or the splendour of Delacroix’s vast painted ceilings. Certainly, the composition owes something to the panoramic Battle of San Romano (c. 1438-40) by Paolo Uccello, which de Staël had seen in London’s National Gallery several months previously. That work’s limbs, lances and patterned pennants, as well as its interplay of rosy and verdant hues, find clear echoes in de Staël’s sweeping panels and masts of pigment. The football match – itself a ‘battle’ of sorts – is staged by de Staël as a historic moment. As the Centre Pompidou’s chief curator Jean-Paul Ameline has written, ‘The Parc des Princes … has all the characteristics of a grande machine, renewing for the twentieth century the genre of history painting as practiced for centuries. With its monumental dimensions, its epic subject, and its frieze-like composition whose movement is given by the play of vertical and oblique, the Parc des Princes is deliberately similar to the masterpieces of Géricault or Delacroix that Staël loved to visit the Louvre, but also, as has been said, the “battles” of Uccello seen in Paris and London’ (J-P. Ameline, ‘Funambulisme entre figuration et abstraction : Nicolas de Staël face à la critique’, in Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 2003, p. 20).
De Staël’s enthusiasm for the Old Masters was not matched by his interest in the work of living artists. He pursued a single-minded vision, largely unconcerned by the fervent critical debates about abstraction, figuration, tradition and innovation that rocked mid-century France. Nonetheless, Parc des Princes can be understood in dialogue with the work of some of his avant-garde contemporaries. Its splintering, refracted hues might be seen to echo elements of paintings by his friends Robert and Sonia Delaunay, whose ‘Orphism’ moved from Cubism towards lyrical abstraction, eschewing recognisable form for the dynamism of pure colour and light. There are parallels to be drawn, too, with the papiers coupés of Henri Matisse, whose La Tristesse du roi (1952) – now in the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou – was shown alongside Parc des Princes at the 1952 Salon de mai. Surpassing even de Staël’s canvas in scale, La Tristesse du roi’s massive, collaged planes of colour and abstracted human bodies similarly preserve a narrative subject while displaying a boldly melodic attitude to pictorial pattern. The Salon was a yearly exhibition held by an association founded in 1943, when France was under German occupation. Led by the critic Gaston Diehl, the group stood in strong opposition to Nazi ideology and the censorship of ‘degenerate art’, supporting formal experimentation and free expression. Showcased together as part of this progressive vanguard, de Staël and Matisse were in good company.
At the Salon de mai, Parc des Princes caught the eye of the influential New York-based art dealer Paul Rosenberg. He did not purchase the canvas, but Jacques Dubourg, de Staël’s European dealer, excitedly reported that ‘Rosenberg is still bitten ... the tableau in the Salon de mai is very pleasing to him, but the size scares him. He likes the [smaller] footballers too but they’re sold. The difficulty is an exciting thing and we have left him with his excitement’ (J. Dubourg, letter to N. de Staël, 7 June 1952, in F. de Staël, ed., Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de l’œuvre peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 130). Indeed, the story with Rosenberg was far from over. In March 1953, de Staël travelled to New York to hang his debut American solo exhibition. The show, at Knoedler Gallery on Manhattan’s 57th Street, opened to huge acclaim. Parc des Princes starred alongside 25 other paintings, including Rue Gauguet (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Le Parc de Sceaux (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) and a number of smaller ‘footballers.’ André Chastel noted in his review that ‘The difficulty does not repel the public of New York; the grandeur of Nicolas de Staël’s work has long fascinated them; the crowds thronged’ (A. Chastel, ‘Succès de Manessier et de Nicolas de Staël à New York’, Le Monde, 10 April 1953). Time magazine summed up the reaction: ‘Manhattan critics, pleased to have something really new to write about, trowelled on the praise. “Majestic”, said the Times. Said Art News: “One of the few painters to emerge from postwar Paris with something to say, and a way of saying it with authority.” Manhattan buyers were just as complimentary in a more practical way; by week’s end the show was a near sellout’ (‘Say it with Slabs’, Time, 30 March 1953, p. 68). In June 1953, Rosenberg got back in contact, offering to become de Staël’s exclusive dealer in the United States. De Staël accepted. Rosenberg would show de Staël’s works in his gallery alongside those of Picasso, Braque and Matisse, and worked on generous terms that eased his long-running financial difficulties. With a steady income, de Staël was able to rent a house, travel in Italy – where he would paint his great Agrigente landscapes – and eventually purchase a chateau in Ménerbes, Provence.
Even before his deal with Rosenberg, an immediate blossoming of ambition followed de Staël’s critical and commercial triumph at the Knoedler show. Several of the large canvases that he made soon after Parc des Princes turn to overtly musical and performative themes, in tune with the stately and harmonious new mode of painting the work had unlocked for him. On his return from New York, he completed the major work Ballet (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): visible unfinished alongside Parc des Princes in Antoine Tudal’s 1952 photographs of the Rue Gauguet studio, this composition may well have begun as a second large ‘footballers’ painting before its change in title. Around the same time, he painted two works titled Les Indes Galantes, inspired by the music and choreography of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera-ballet of that name, as well as L’Orchestre (Centre Georges Pompidou), a palatial scape of elegant, faceted greys and greens that matches Parc des Princes in scale. On his canvas, de Staël transformed the football stadium from a site of contest to an arena for freedom in play, exploring the possibilities of paint with joyful, operatic openness.
Able to almost miraculously unite seemingly antithetical qualities in his paintings, de Staël was tragically unable to resolve his own internal conflicts. On 16 March 1955, almost exactly three years after he saw the game at the Parc des Princes, he threw himself from the ramparts of his studio in Antibes. He was just forty-one years old. His friend Douglas Cooper described him as ‘a complex and in many ways contradictory character: autocratic, exacting, exuberant, morose, charming, witty and uncompromising. And he lived out his life between a series of violent extremes. Thus pride would suddenly be replaced by humility, self-indulgence by asceticism, exaltation by gloom, uproarious laughter by withering scorn, supreme confidence by serious doubts, excessive work by deliberate idleness, great poverty by riches’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 88). Grappling earnestly with the problems of perception and significance in paint, his career was not one of steady progression but rather, as André Chastel has observed, one of ‘a personal rhythm of impatience and fearlessness; from which some paintings emerge, from the outset, as obvious articulations, the three or four moments, where the painter, like a waking giant, has taken the full measure of the effort to be accomplished and has thrown himself à corps perdu – the only fitting expression – in its path. And finally this confrontation says it all’ (A. Chastel, ‘Présentation par André Chastel’, Nicolas de Staël, Paris 1968, p. 18).
Parc des Princes surely represents one of these spectacular moments. Its wholehearted majesty is inseparable from that of the man himself: an impressive, charismatic figure who made a profound impression on everyone who met him. A ‘great painting’ in every sense of the word, Parc des Princes is an eloquent union of instinct and design, of tradition and modernity, of body and mind, of art and life. For all its force, it is a thing born of difficult, delicate balance. ‘What I am trying for’, wrote de Staël in 1954, ‘is a continuous renewal, really continuous, and it is not easy. I know what my painting is beneath its appearances, its violence, its perpetual games of power. It is a fragile thing in the good, in the sublime sense. It is as fragile as love’ (N. de Staël, letter to J. Dubourg, December 1954, in F. de Staël, ed., Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de l’œuvre peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 1225).