Vitality of De Stael's Work Lives On

Exhibition features School of Paris painter who veered between abstract and figurative art. ART: REVIEW

FOR French painter Nicolas de Stael, art was a way ``to shout without anger ... a slow combustion,'' he once wrote to a friend. He urged artists to ``pursue color for color's sake...,'' not to look at paintings in museums but to ``look at tubes of color, color that hits you between the eyes ... and density.'' The walls are alive with the sound of de Stael's colors at the Phillips Collection here, where ``Nicholas de Stael in America'' is on view through Sept. 9. The exhibition, organized by the Phillips Collection, includes 91 works of art (57 paintings and 34 collages) by this School of Paris painter who veered between abstract and figurative art.

You can stand in the rooms filled with some of his late paintings and feel the vibrant impact of his character, as though he took bits of his life and flung them at the canvases. It is a paradox that at the height of his success in 1955, when he couldn't paint fast enough to meet the demand for his work, de Stael took his own life at his studio in Antibes, near Nice.

The colors sing as well as shout in ``Large Orange Nude,'' a painting in ultraviolet, orange, and sulphur-yellow that's so abstract it might be a mountainscape or a kite. And the sun seems to shine out of ``Agrigento,'' a landscape made up entirely of wedges, triangles, rectangles, and trapezoids of scarlet, magenta, mauve, gold, yellow, orange, white, and crimson that catch fire from each other.

In ``Two Vases of Flowers,'' with its shimmering sapphire backdrop, the yellow, orange, flesh-pink, and red flowers seem to vibrate almost off the orange table they stand on. In ``Football Players'' in the Parc des Princes, de Stael has conjured up paint in motion, the actual sense of the players running and colliding on a blue field

Although de Stael is gone, the vitality of his art lives on. One aspect of that vitality is the density he had mentioned. Using a palette knife at times to apply his paint, he hurled it on so thickly that the surface has an almost sculptural quality. In ``Nocturne'' (1950), the paint is thick as chunky peanut butter, as though he'd slathered it on with a spackling knife.

But close to the time of his death, when his paintings were selling so fast in America that he could hardly keep up, that very density meant they didn't dry fast enough. Sometimes they stuck together when shipped and had to be redone. (He was asked to paint more flowers because they sold well.) So de Stael turned to smoother, thinner painting, which dried faster and sold faster, as in ``Saline'' done in 1954. What this dilution of style meant to his credo as an artist we can only guess.

AFTER closing at the Phillips, the show will move to the Cincinnati, home of some of the earliest American collectors of de Stael's work, where it will be seen at the Cincinnati Museum of Art from Oct. 16 to Dec. 31. Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic American collectors of de Stael's art; he organized the artist's first one-man museum show in America in 1953. ``Nicholas de Stael in America'' is the first North American exhibition of his work in 25 years, since a 1965-66 retrospective. His reputation has faded in this country since then, but this new show goes a long way toward reviving it.

Born in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) a few years before the Russian Revolution, de Stael was the titled child of a Baltic baron who married the daughter of a wealthy Russian family. As a young child, he was a member of the Czar's College of Pages.

The family fled Russia for Poland, where Nicholas was orphaned at 8; he and his two sisters were brought up in Brussels according to his mother's wishes by an affluent family of Russian descent. He studied for three years at the Acad'emie Royale des Beaux-Arts, then began traveling in Europe, Morocco, and Algeria for his art.

In her excellent essay for the de Stael catalog, the show's curator, Eliza Rathbone, quotes critic Douglas Cooper describing the artist as well over six feet tall, large and powerful. He goes on to say, ``The size of the man cannot be divorced from the nature of his work, because everything about him was over life-size.'' It was Cooper who wrote in 1955 that de Stael was ``the truest, the most considerable, and the most innately gifted painter who has appeared on the scene in Europe or elsewhere during the last 25 years.''

DE STAEL'S liaison with painter Jeannine Guillou began in Morocco and lasted through his one-year hitch with the Foreign Legion, their life in France during World War II, the birth of their daughter, and Jeannine's death in 1946. Three months later he married Fran,coise Chapouton, and began to sell a bit of his art. His life with Jeannine had been that of the starving artist, living in such poverty that he did decorative art to pay the bills.

In 1950, his fame began when the Mus'ee National d'Art Moderne bought its first de Stael painting. His work was included in four other French and American shows, and he had his own one-man show in New York, organized by his dealer, Theodore Schempp. With that, his career rocketed forward. In 1954 he left his wife and four children in Paris and moved to Antibes to paint alone; his last picture was ``Le Fort Carr'e `a Antibes'' (1955).

There is a foreshadowing of the price he paid for his success in ``The Artist's Table,'' done in 1954. It is a beautiful but ominous painting, with its near-black table looking like a nightscape on which paint brushes, jugs, bottles, and mugs gleam in an eerie blue light.

De Stael once wrote to a friend: ``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 to which I have never found any other issue than painting.''

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