Flash News: Nicolas De Stael – Etel Adnan – Philippe Pasqua


Nicolas de Staël – the art of the essential

Between July 1953 and June 1954 Nicolas DE STAËL (1914-1955) spent eleven highly prolific months in Provence. Apart from falling in love with his host, Jeanne Mathieu, (and sending his wife and children back to Paris), it was a period of intense solitude and total immersion in his work, and he produced no less than 300 canvases out of a catalogue raisonné numbering a little over a thousand. Nine months later, in March 1955, he took his own life by throwing himself off the terrace of his workshop in Antibes. For the first time ever, this highly intense period of the artist’s life is the subject of a revealing exhibition the Hotel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence (until 23 September 2018). A total of 71 paintings and 26 drawings from the period were selected by Gustave de Staël, his last son, and Marie du Boucher, his grand-daughter.

Bathed in Provençal sunshine, Nicolas de Staël’s work changed considerably: his palette of dark and flat tones gradually gave way to a range of iridescent landscapes. But he continued to work in a studio environment using memories and impressions for inspiration. With the brighter palette came an almost total freedom of form. Values are reversed – turned upside down by the Mistral (Mediterranean wind) – fields become purple… the sky becomes green and the trees turn red.

De Staël’s Provence period is also his most sought-after: earlier this year a Nu Debout (1953) fetched $12.1 million at Christie’s in New York (17 May 2018). Between 1952 and 1953, Nicolas de Staël painted 31 paintings of flowers, the largest of which, simply titled Fleurs, was highly influenced by his discovery of Van Gogh at an exhibition of still lifes at the Orangerie Museum in 1952. Included in his first major show in the United States (Knoedler Gallery, March 1953), Fleurs sold for $9.7 million last June at Christie’s in Paris. After the Knoedler show, de Staël signed an exclusive contract with Paul Rosenberg, the famous New York art dealer who subsequently generated American demand for his work. His retreat to the Provençal studio was primarily aimed at creating works for another major exhibition in New York in 1954. The Nu Debout that holds his current auction record was therefore painted during this period of demand pressure and – as it turned out – unrequited love. Having refused to leave her family for him, the third love of his life, Jeanne Mathieu, remained indelibly etched upon his mind. The result was a whole series of large-format canvases painted from memory. We feel a profound struggle with matter and a distinct progression towards an ideal of minimalist essentialism. Measuring 146 x 89 cm the Nu Debout canvas had already been sold at auction: in June 2013 it fetched $6 million at Artcurial in Paris. Five years later its price doubled, demolishing its high estimate to finish at over $12 million. A tribute to a period as creative as it was tormented for the artist.


Etel Adnan. A promising artist aged 93!

Philosopher and poet, painter and weaver, Etel ADNAN (1925) is a rare artist who has lived in the Lebanon and the United States, but now lives in France. Much of her artistic force seems to derive from her culture switching lifestyle. Etel Adnan uses a number of different artistic media and combines writing and painting in her poetic creations.

Etel’s first passion was writing (novels, essays, lyrics …). She started painting timidly and almost by chance in the 1960s. Sheltered behind the window of her house in San Francisco’s Sausalito Bay, she painted what she saw: Mount Tamalpais, reminding her of of the Lebanese mountains of her childhood. Mountains are depicted as rough triangles, and their slopes as dynamic lines; the sun… as a simple disk. On the outer borders of abstraction, her paintings exude calmness and serenity. The bright colors are applied with a spatula or a knife and are never mixed. Adnan is heavily influenced by Paul Klee’s watercolors. She also loves leporellos (orihon in Japanese), accordion sketchbooks, in which she mixes drawing, Arabic writing and poetry. By combining the essence of Arabic pictorial art (calligraphy) with an Asian format, Etel Adnan has made a unique contribution to Contemporary art.

Etel Adnan is still inspired by her local mountain, and forty years after her very humble beginnings in the visual arts – she is currently enjoying substantial international success. In 2012, her characteristic small-format paintings were very well received at the Kassel Documenta. In 2014, she was invited to the Whitney Museum’s biennial in New York; in 2017, Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe organised her first French retrospective; this summer her work is being shown at Zurich’s Zentrum Paul Klee and next next winter she has a solo show at San Francisco’s Moma.

The secondary market is also reacting positively. The works of this “newcomer” are still rare at auction (less than 30 since 2011), but the frequency is accelerating in recent years: her creations have appeared in the catalogues of the Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, and buyers are not hard to find. In the fall of 2017, a watercolor leporello sold for $40,000 (Ink pots, 2004, AT Auction, Beirut) against an estimate of less than $30,000. Last June, two small paintings offered at Sotheby’s in London beat their high estimates with hammer prices of $46,000 and $52,500. Excellent results for a promising artist of 93!


Phillipe Pasqua, a monumental retrospective

Following his Borderline exhibition at the Monaco Oceanographic Museum, Philippe PASQUA (1965) is now enjoying his first major French retrospective. The show has been organised at the Domaine de Chamarande in the Essonne region (southern Paris) and is entitled Allegoria (literally speaking with images). The exhibition makes sense from the entrance with Who could be scared: a threatening 10-metre shark in shiny stainless steel… underscoring man’s fragility. After that… eight monumental sculptures have been installed in superb juxtaposition with the exuberant nature of the Domaine’s vast garden. Visitors are caught between their own reflection in the works’ shiny finishes and the omnipresent life /death duality that animates all of his intriguing creations.

Pasqua’s taste for the ‘monumental’ goes hand in hand with an obsession with vulnerability… notably of bodies and faces. In the Domaine’s interior spaces we see massive paintings where ugliness and beauty are combined in portraits of disabled children, prostitutes or transgender people, giving a collective dimension to their emotions. Several installations – including Santa Muerte with a bronze skeleton of a giant tortoise caught in fishing nets and Le chant des méduses, a squeaky-clean dumpster full of glass jellyfish – also reveal the artist’s sensitivity to the issue of ocean preservation. But no retrospective of Pasqua’s work would be complete without at least one of the Vanities (skulls) that have contributed to his notoriety… and to meet this requirement, the artist decided to present a burnt skull of truly colossal dimensions: six meters high decorated with butterflies, each measuring nearly three meters wide.

On the auction market, monumental works fetch good prices especially if they are gilded with fine gold. One of Pasqua’s butterfly vanities (1m³) recently fetched €34,440 at Cornette de Saint Cyr. Those measuring half that size (50 cm) cost at least €5,000. A painting from his Vanité series will be offered on 8 September at Le Chesnay Enchères in Versailles with a starting price of €7,800 ($9,040). In 2014 Pasqua, who likes to play with the codes of luxury, managed to sell his leather-wrapped and fully tattooed Lamborghini Superleggera for €450,000 ($605,000) at Monte-Carlo’s auction house. That record still stands unbeaten. Unknown 20 years ago, Pasqua has developed demand on the French art market as well as in the United States, which currently accounts for about 10% of his auction turnover.