The [Fine] Art of Fugue

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Nicolas de Staël, Fugue, c.1951 and 1952. Oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 39 1/2 in. (80.645 x 100.33 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Acquired 1952.

Since beginning my internship at the Phillips in May, one of the works in the collection that has made a big impression on me is Nicolas de Staël’s Fugue (along with his other eight pieces in the permanent collection). The cool colors and vibrant texture attracted me when I walked by and I instantly recognized something different about this piece. There is a simultaneity, yet complex unity to this painting.

While I am by no stretch of the imagination a music buff, I do appreciate classical music. When I researched de Staël’s Fugue, I found out that Duncan Phillips described de Staël’s work as having the “structure of rhythmical repetitions with underlying counter rhythms” present in a musical composition.

After looking into what a fugue was, I discovered that Johann Sebastian Bach is known for his compositions of masterful Baroque fugues and cannons. According to Oxford Music Online, the term fugue means, “flight” or “escape.” In music the word denotes a composition in which three or more voices (very rarely two) enter imitatively one after the other, each “giving chase” to the preceding voice.

In the same way that Bach’s Fugues produce simultaneous resounds, de Staël’s Fugue echoes the same sentiment, in this case with a brushstroke instantly mimicking its preceding mark. Even the musical animations for Bach’s Fugues visually resemble the composition of de Staël’s Fugue in the way that the different colored blocks are layered, aligning with the fugue pattern of Bach’s work.

Looking at de Staël’s piece, we see that he uses more than three colors (gold in the first layer, blue green in another, along with accents of black, white, and gray) in his Fugue, which correspond to the minimum of three voices in Bach’s works. These color palettes within the painting are structured into a flow of blocks which seem to imitate each other, similar to Bach’s melodic lines.

In view of Duncan Phillips classifying de Staël as a “poet-painter and a protégé of Braque,” the current location of his nine pieces conveys Phillips’s careful consideration of the conversation between neighboring works and how they interact with one another as they are perfectly situated just outside the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life 1928-1945 exhibition.

Are there any interesting relationships you’ve noticed in the Phillips’s galleries that make you want to investigate?

 

Carson Shelton, K12 Education Intern

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