• Sale 1103

    The Art Of The Surreal

    6 February 2013, London, King Street

  • Lot 105

    Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)

    Ecce homo (La descente de croix)

    Price Realised  

    Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
    Ecce homo (La descente de croix)
    signed, dated and titled 'P. DELVAUX ECCE HOMO CHOISEL 7-49' (lower center); titled again 'ECCE HOMO' (on the reverse)
    oil on joined panels in the artist's frame
    70 7/8 x 102 3/8 in. (180 x 260 cm.) (irregular)
    Painted in July 1949


    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    Contact the department

    'When I've done a skeleton painting I've never thought about death at all. Quite the opposite. I've always thought about doing something expressive, lively, intense' (Paul Delvaux speaking in Paul Delvaux; the Sleepwalker of Saint Idesbald, A film by Adrian Maben).


    Painted in 1949, this large altarpiece-like work is one of a major series of paintings made by Delvaux during and immediately after the Second World War, in which the artist reinterpreted the traditional religious theme of Christ's Passion using contemporary settings and the figures of skeletons.

    Entitled Ecce Homo - traditionally a work in which the spectator is obliged to contemplate the suffering and self-sacrifice of Christ by viewing the tortured state of his body - here, in a scene more reminiscent of a strange nocturnal Passion play taking place in a Brussels arcade, eight skeletons seem to enact the scene of Christ's descent from the Cross. The wounded and deceased figure of Christ, highlighted by a radiant white shroud at the centre of the painting is, being a skeleton, in all other respects indistinguishable from that of all the other participants. The wounds in his flesh cannot of course be seen and the lamentation over his deceased state is rendered strange if not meaningless, as too is the apparently holy nature of his sacrifice and martyrdom given the Surreal and otherworldly context within which Delvaux has depicted it.

    Following a strong pictorial tradition in Belgian art of depicting animated skeletons that runs from Breughel through to James Ensor, Delvaux has taken the skeletal form of man to create a startlingly expressive pictorial drama that recalls many Old Master depictions of the same subject but in a new, strange, humorous, and, for some people also unnerving way. The future Pope John XXIII for example was in fact so outraged when he saw Delvaux's crucified skeletons on exhibition at the 1954 Venice Biennale, that he subsequently forbade the clergy from attending the exhibition.

    For Delvaux, however, who had been fascinated by skeletons since childhood and had spent many hours during the war years making painstaking studies of the numerous skeletons in the Museum of Natural History in Brussels, skeletons were merely 'a very, very, very strong expression of the human.' His use of them in his paintings, as with his nudes or the classical architecture that also began to appear in his paintings in the 1940s, was purely as an expressive pictorial device. 'I think concretely in my skeletons' he said, 'Painting them, I only wanted to re-establish a certain kind of descriptive tradition of the 'Christ-Passion' theme. But I did not grant them any moral implication and I did not think about death... I only wanted to paint expressive skeletons and, forgive me the term, alive' (Paul Delvaux quoted in Delvaux, exh. cat, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 1998, p. 54).

    The skeleton for Delvaux appealed to him primarily because 'it is a structure. Then it is life. It is life in essence...A skeleton is the frame of the living creature. A frame is important and the extraordinary thing is that this frame already preserves within it the general outline of the living creature, the form of the bones, the hip, the tibia, the fibula, you can feel the shape of the arms (for example) when you see a skeleton's arms' (Paul Delvaux speaking in Paul Delvaux; the Sleepwalker of Saint Idesbald, A film by Adrian Maben). As he was often at pains to assert, his motivation for using skeletons in scenes of the Passion was not intentionally provocative but merely a logical continuation of the 'surrealness' of his imagination. 'I had the idea of making scenes of the Passion using skeletons' he said, 'because I thought that in a way I could put the maximum of dramatic expression into the skeletons. I could not paint more religious scenes with living figures, that would have been stupid, it would have been meaningless. It had been done a thousand times, admirably in previous centuries. What I could do was to replace the living figure by skeletons, because then I could suddenly give my skeletons something different, dramatic, living...' (Paul Delvaux quoted in Paul Delvaux 1897-1994, exh. cat, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Belgium, Brussels, 1997, p. 26).

    Situated in a deserted Brussel's street at night, the extraordinary physical drama involved in depicting a scene of the descent from the cross - a scene that has captivated European painters since the 15th century - is extended in this work through the overt expressiveness of the skeletons' bodies and the drama that their forms bring to the poses in which they have been set. With its composition and format echoing that of Rogier van der Weyden's famous Deposition in the Prado, Delvaux's Ecce Homo, like Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels before it, presents a startlingly new, if also secular and localized take on one of the established icons of Western European art. 'Through the skeleton,' Delvaux asserted, 'I represent a different kind of being in a kind of medieval mystery play which is perhaps profane, but never profanatory - the idea of sacrilege never entered my mind - it was put there by others...the sacred characters are depicted as skeletons because skeletons magnify the very structure of life itself, with all those admirable lines like the bars of cages through which the light sheds vivifying rays' (Paul Delvaux, quoted in James Kirkup, 'Paul Delvaux, Obituary', in The Independent, 21 July 1994).

    Special Notice

    Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.
    VAT rate of 20% is payable on hammer price and buyer's premium


    Provenance

    Claude Spaak, Choisel.
    Mme Jean Krebs, Brussels, by 1967.
    M & Mme R. Vanthournout, Brussels, by 1973.
    The Scheringa Museum of Realist Art, Spanbroek, by whom acquired from the above in 2002.


    Saleroom Notice

    Please note that this lot is requested for the exhibition Les formes de la pensée. Peinture et philosophie, that will take place at the Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, from 29 June to 6 October 2013.


    Pre-Lot Text

    PROPERTY OF THE SCHERINGA MUSEUM OF REALIST ART


    Literature

    L.D.H., 'Les Salons d'Art. Paul Delvaux', in La Libre Belgique, Brussels, 28 November 1957, p. 9.
    'Reviews and Previews - Paul Delvaux Staempfli Exhibition', in Art News, vol. 58, no. 7, New York, November 1959, p. 12.
    M. Florkin, 'Gazette', in Combat, Liège, 29 March 1962 (illustrated).
    P.-A. De Bock, Paul Delvaux. L'Homme, Le Peintre, Psychologie d'un Art, Brussels, 1967, p. 296 (illustrated pl. 100).
    M. Eemans, La peinture moderne en Belgique, Brussels, 1969, p. 125 (illustrated).
    De Standaard, Brussels, 25 August 1969 (illustrated p. 7).
    Depuis 45, Brussels, 1970, p. 108.
    J. Vovelle, Le Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972, no. 244, p. 364 (illustrated p. 197).
    Dagblad voor de Zaanstreek, De Typhoon, Zaandam, 28 April 1973 (illustrated p. 19).
    Babants dagblad, 's Hertogenbosch, 5 May 1973 (illustrated).
    Vrij Nederland, Amsterdam, 12 May 1973 (illustrated p. 19).
    Porquoi pas?, Brussels, 12 July 1973 (illustrated).
    P. Van der Straeten, 'Paul Delvaux', in Rénovation, Brussels, 11-18 October 1973.
    H. Waterschoot, 'Een machteloos gebaar van menselijke eenzaamheid', in Knack, Brussels, 23 May 1973.
    Bulletin Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, April 1973, no. 4 (illustrated p. 26).
    I. Lebeer, Interview avec Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1974 (illustrated p. 11).
    M. Butor, J. Clair & S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Brussels, 1975, no. 197, p. 229 (illustrated).
    B. Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, p. 257 (illustrated).
    E. Ansenk (ed.), Schilders van een andere werkelijkheid: in de collectie van het Scheringa Museum voor Realisme, Zwolle, 2006, pp. 20 & 38-39 (illustrated).
    P. van der Lugt (ed.), Nieuw Realisme: 159 kunstwerken uit de collectie van het voormalige Scheringa Museum voor Realisme, Zwolle, 2010, p. 60 (illustrated).


    Exhibited

    Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Dertien belgische schilders, October - November 1952, no. 38.
    Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Quelques artistes belges depuis Ensor, April - September 1958, no. 87 (illustrated).
    New York, Staempfli Gallery, Paul Delvaux, October - November 1959, no. 19 (illustrated).
    Liège, Salle de l'Émulation, Paul Delvaux, March 1962, no.11 (illustrated).
    Ostend, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux, July - August 1962, no. 38.
    Geneva, Galerie Krugier, Rétrospective Paul Delvaux, September - October 1966, no. 12 (illustrated).
    Brussels, Musée d'Ixelles, Paul Delvaux, November - December 1967, no. 22 (illustrated).
    Recklinghausen, Stadtische Kunsthalle, Reiche des Phantastischen, May - June 1968, no. 43 (illustrated).
    Rotterdam, Museum Boymans Van Beuningen, Paul Delvaux, April - June 1973, no. 46 (illustrated).
    Knokke-le-Zoute, Casino Communal, Paul Delvaux, June - September 1973, no. 38 (illustrated).