Monday, January 7, 2008

Through Thick and Thin

Before World War II, Nicolas de Stael painted mainly representational works. When hostilities erupted, de Stael responded to reality with greater and greater abstraction. Born January 5, 1914, de Stael met Jean Arp and Sonia and Robert Delaunay in the South of France in 1941 and followed their example in creating his first abstract paintings. de Stael painted Marathon (above) in 1948, but it represents much of his early work in the thick application of impasto. Like the Abstract Expressionists in America, de Stael’s paints in an athletic, physical style that naturally drew him to paint several sports scenes. The struggle of the straining marathoner mirrors the struggles de Stael encountered in finding acceptance and monetary success. Two years before he painted Marathon, de Stael’s wife died from malnutrition.

de Stael first found success in his abstract works based on recognizable landscapes, such as his Mount Sainte-Victorie (above, from 1954). To paint the same mountain that Cezanne made famous took a lot of courage, which de Stael certainly had. de Stael painted often with a palette knife, thickly working the paint onto the surface, similar to the technique of Chaim Soutine. Although de Stael knew and befriended Georges Braque, one of the founders of Cubism, I find it hard to see much influence in his work. de Stael’s unique blend of different influences, many of which concentrated on the use of color to express emotion, adds up to a school unto itself in many ways. This stylistic isolation found a counterpart in de Stael’s personal life, as depression forced him to pull away from his artistic peers. Many see de Stael’s work as a forerunner of Color field painting, which I agree with if you place his work next to that of Hans Hofmann, who also served as an inspiration to the Color Field artists but never truly became one of them.

de Stael finally succumbed to the worst elements of his depression in 1955 and took his own life by leaping from the balcony of his eleventh story studio. Blue Reclining Nude (above, from 1955) remained as one of his final works, a bold simplification of the human form that harks back to Picasso’s Blue Period and looks forward to the Color Field artists, again, in its use of broad areas of color composed of thinly applied paint. The artist who began working with such a heavy hand ended with a lighter touch. Sadly, nothing could lighten his heavy heart.

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