NON-AMERICAN POSTWAR ART V: Nicolas de Staël

L’ENTRE DEUX: NICOLAS DE STAËL

A CONVERSATION OF JANUARY 1950, reported by Staël’s friend Pierre Lecuire, does something to attenuate, or at least to account for, the seemingly paradoxical character of Staël’s commitment to abstraction. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a glue-pot and an ashtray, ‘here are objects, and this is just what I don’t represent.’ Then, picking up a pencil, he made it pass backwards and forwards from the glue-pot to the ashtray. ‘Now, look, that’s painting. L’entre-deux, what lies between the two. Braque paints what is around the objects, then he represents the objects. As for myself, objects, they don’t interest me any longer. I no longer paint them.’ Pressed as to what was left of the object in his painting, Staël said: ‘Rapport. Rapport. Rapport.’ These are the words of what we might call a holistic realist. Scorning perspective and resemblance as means to achieving figuration, Staël edged his way into figuration by first training himself to respect the painting as a wall, then by learning how to create an overall represented space. The depiction of objects came third. Objects could be depicted only when the space into which they were to fit was complete, and this was the point Staël felt he had reached by February 1952. The year that followed showed him his instincts were right. He ended the year by writing: ‘I do not contrast abstract painting with figurative painting.’

The preceding paragraph is from Richard Wollheim’s review of the catalogue* for the Nicholas de Staël exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2003.

SOME HAVE TAKEN Staël’s statement about the gluepot and ashtray to mean he believed his work occupied a conceptual territory “in between” abstraction and figuration. Actually, as Wollheim eloquently explains, l’entre deux refers to the negative space or interstice between objects; the subject of Staël’s pictures, therefore, is the spatial and representational ether in which objects may be placed and arranged, but the objects themselves are accidents in the Aristotelian sense. Mistaking painting’s purpose for the representation of things on a table would be to lapse into vulgar depiction.** The l’entre deux distinction, which Staël says he learned from Braque, makes his claim to being a non-figurative artist who pictures contain landscapes, still lives, and figures perfectly logical and enlightening, in terms of his own work and Cubism as well.

* Richard Wollheim, “Yellow Sky, Red Sea, Violet Sands,” London Review of Books, 24 July 2003.

** The inclination to pursue the void is not unlike John Keats’ concept of negative capability.

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