Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon: Nicolas de Staël

Starved of art that excites and inspires me I dragged my family 3 hours north to Lyon, to the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée Art Contemporain.

A handful of paintings stood out for me, but this had most impact.

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La Cathédral, 1955, Nicolas de Staël

This artist always catches my eye and I confess the reasons are partly romantic. He lived for some time in a village I know very well, in a peculiar isolated house hanging off a rocky outcrop. He had a short and tragic life, blighted by lost love. Plus, he wore high-waisted trousers and was quite dashing.

La Cathédral stood out in a room of brightly coloured works. The building almost glows, like lit mother-of-pearl against a dense night sky, devoid of stars.

I wrote this when I stood in front of it: sense of a glowing body at night. Contains something living, moving breathing. Vibrates. In way light does. Almost shimmering. Pockets – rooms-people? in the end it is light. Black line at bottom – rooted? crypt? pathway? calling? Light & dark  Blackness is comforting, enclosing, not menacing, rather enveloping.

There’s a strong sense of de Stael dealing with something here. I wrote this sentence and then flipped to Wiki to check the year he died. I already know it was suicide. Turns out it was 1955, the year of this painting.

My habit is to take in a painting before I research it. I’m glad I did that here, and I’ll continue to do that. I think we are at risk of seeing what we’ve read in a book into the painting, without stirring our own feelings up first. Everything I took from this painting makes a lot of sense now. Here is a place of shimmering light, in an enveloping darkness, and it beckons. There are people in this place, perhaps he feels them waiting for him.

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At first glance, or from afar, the painting looks as though it’s been done in black and white, or maybe some added creams. Getting up close there is a whole palette of muted colours: green, lilac, beiges, pinks, deep reds and blues. I think it is these that gives the impression of shimmering light, a light refracted.

This from the museum’s guide:

La Cathédrale est une des œuvres ultimes de l’artiste. Son imposante silhouette se détache sur l’obscurité d’un fond bleu-nuit. La fluidité nouvelle de la pâte et l’allègement de la matière picturale caractérisent son traitement. Le ciel sombre semble avoir été peint d’un seul geste, alors que la masse claire est composée de rectangles et de carrés exécutés en camaïeu de gris et de blancs, séparés par quelques touches de rouge, d’or ou de bleu qui semblent illuminer le bâtiment de l’intérieur. Le plus grand des rectangles reprend en réduction la masse de l’édifice.

Comme de nombreuses peintures de cette époque, le tableau est peint dans une gamme limitée de couleurs, dans une harmonie de gris, noirs, bleus foncés et blancs. Ce chromatisme a pu faire songer à une influence de Vélasquez et de Manet, artistes dont de Staël étudia l’œuvre au cours d’un voyage en Espagne à l’automne 1954.

Selon le témoignage d’un proche de l’artiste, Pierre Lecuire, le tableau aurait été peint à Paris, probablement avant 1955. Il appartiendrait dans sa thématique même aux nombreuses vues de Paris réalisées au cours de l’été 1954. Françoise de Staël quant à elle n’exclut pas qu’après avoir fait un dessin de Notre-Dame de Paris pendant cette période, l’artiste “ait repensé le sujet à Antibes, au-delà des monuments connus, érigeant sa propre Cathédrale imaginaire”.

The last paragraph does question where and when the painting was completed. There are two opposing views – one that it was completed in Paris, before 1955, and using sketches he had made of Notre-Dame, and the other that it was completed in Antibes, from his imagination.

PS.

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View of Notre-Dame, 1914, Henri Matisse

Several weeks after seeing this painting I came across this Matisse painting in a book and found it striking how both have abstracted Notre-Dame, capturing it as a place of light enclosed by a block of darker colour.

 

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