Lot 9. Nicolas de Staël (1914 - 1955), Honfleur, oil on card, 13.5 by 22 cm. 5 3/8 by 8 5/8 in. Executed in 1952. Estimate 200,000 — 300,000 GBP. Sold 200,000 GBP. Photo: Sotheby's.
Exhibited: Geneva, Galerie Daniel Malingue, Staël: Priorité Peinture, May - July 1992, n.p., no. 10, illustrated in colour
Note: The greatest challenge for any European painter in the late 1940s and early 50s came from America, where the machismo compositions of Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still eschewed representative instincts, and epitomised an individualised American ethos. They painted emotion, with emotion. After all, this was the age of Existentialism, and artists were expected to look inwards for inspiration. Thus it must have come as some surprise when in 1952, Nicolas de Staël, one of the greatest proponents of Tachisme, Europe’s answer to Abstract Expressionism, began to paint from nature. Like Monet or Renoir seventy years earlier, he would “leave with a backpack stuffed with small boxes, a box full of tubes of colour, brushes, knives and spatulas”, and upon his return would “line all the little sketches against the wall of his studio, happy with his harvest” (Françoise de Staël cited in: Exh. Cat., Geneva, Galerie Daniel Malingue, Staël: Priorité Peinture, May - July 1992, n.p). The bravery of this decision cannot be overestimated. He was the only painter attempting, in the words of one critic, to “reconcile the pattern of abstract forms and arbitrary colours, which are the constituent elements of every picture, with the facts of a visual experience” (Douglas Cooper, ‘Nicolas de Staël: In Memoriam’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 98, No. 638, May 1956, p. 140). He refused to bow to a non-figurative tradition, primarily as his intellectual rigour prevented him from believing that such a thing could exist. In his words, “I do not set up abstract painting in opposition to figurative. 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” (Nicolas de Staël cited in: Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., The Phillips Collection (and travelling), Nicolas de Staël in America, June - December 1990, p. 16).
Honfleur epitomises these concerns. Buttery slabs of oil paint, applied with a palette knife, split the surface of the painting into bands of colour. Each indicates a steadily more distant visual plane, culminating in the sea which in turn dissolves into a grey sky. The scene is intimately familiar. The town of Honfleur is incidental – as it was for the Impressionist masters, light is paramount. The fundamental aim for de Staël was to achieve a balance between “absolute form and absolute formlessness”, and light, a formless entity upon which form is reliant, constituted the perfect subject (Nicolas de Staël writing to Jacques Dubourg, in: Exh. Cat., Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (and travelling), Nicolas de Staël, May - November 1981, p. 16).
The other factor that de Staël considered to be of paramount importance in achieving this balance between form and formlessness, figuration and abstraction, was depth of composition. Honfleur is deeply characteristic of de Staël’s unique handling of paint, perhaps the single factor that has most cemented his reputation. He believed that the balance he strove for could only be expressed through mass and volume, and that each plane of colour had to be carefully gradated, to avoid “ending up with a flat Pompei fresco” (Nicolas de Staël writing to Jacques Dubourg, in: ibid.). Honfleur typifies this subtle textural gradation, whilst simultaneously testifying to de Staël’s intimate evocation of the changeable qualities of light. It captures a moment where de Staël, as a key proponent of European art at the time, breaks free of the yoke of American influence to combine both figuration and abstraction. Tottering tantalisingly between the two, Honfleur defies characterisation, a powerful example from de Staël’s most definitive artistic period.
Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction London, 08 Mar 2017