Description & Technical information

Drawn c.2000, this very large sheet depicts one of Szafran’s favourite subjects; the staircase in the apartment building at 54 rue de Seine in Paris, viewed in steep perspectival foreshortening. Szafran began making pastel drawings and photographs of this staircase in the 1960s, studying it from multiple viewpoints and attempting to capture something of the disorienting sense of vertigo one felt when looking down the stairwell from a high floor. (As the artist himself has noted, ‘The impression of the void, of vertigo, is the strongest sensation I have ever experienced. This can explain why my drawings always contain a hint of vertigo and that often, in front of my subject, I’m terrified by the calling of the void.’) Szafran returned to the theme in the 1990s, and these later works - of which this large sheet is a particularly fine example - are largely based on his photographs and memories of the escalierat 54 rue de Seine. In several works the staircase seems to float in space, at times becoming even more abstract in conception, flattened out and spread open like a fan. Sometimes just the balustrade remains, curving and twisting into the centre of the composition.

Szafran has further described the origin of this particular motif in his work: ‘One evening I was working in this staircase – I’ve always lived in stairwells – and I fell asleep. It was night and I had a nightmare. I woke up and it was the full moon. There was a shadow falling from the window onto the steps of the staircase. I saw it suddenly – I had passed by a thousand times without seeing it and suddenly I noticed it, so I decided to draw it. But the shadow moved every three minutes...the earth turns...There was a slice of light here, while everywhere else was dark. I drew by the light of a flashlight until everything became dark. At one point, everything that had been very dark became light and everything light became dark. To create the whole, I had to keep moving. I was forced to identify myself with a spider, who ascends and descends the end of his thread.’

The artist’s friend James Lord has described these works by Szafran as ‘Plunging views of vertiginous staircases repeated sometimes again and again on the same sheet with shifting, dizzying variations in points of view, intense but fastidious in color, nearly supernatural in the cadenza virtuosity of execution, verging almost upon abstraction though never quite letting slip the desperate affirmation of a specific subject matter, within which we can occasionally make out, as if glimpsed sidelong in the galactic swirl, the tiny, lovely, fragmentary semblance of a human being. Staircases that begin nowhere and lead everywhere, start from nothing and end in everything, where descending is forever ascending and the fullness of emptiness is dense as a white dwarf. Spirals of stair railings tracing the continuum eked out of invisible space which nonetheless balloons beneath coffered skylights and out of windows bluer than the sky…Szafran’s staircases…are the output of an eye dedicated to the absolutism of its own experience, disciplined by self-effacement before what sight alone can convey to the senses but submissive at the same time to the sublimating want of self-expression.'

Period:  20th century
Origin:  France, Paris
Medium: Pastel, Gouache on board
Signature: Signed Szafran in red chalkat the lower right centre.

Dimensions: 60.5 x 69.5 cm (23⁷/₈ x 27³/₈ inches)
Provenance: The studio of the artist
Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
Private collection
Anonymous sale, Versailles, Versailles Enchères, 27 April 2014, lot 183
William Louis-Dreyfus, Mount Kisco
The Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection.

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints