One of several great works that Paul Delvaux painted in 1947, Le nu et le mannequin (The Nude and the Mannequin) is a large, important and deeply erotic painting depicting a strange encounter between a sensual reclining nude and a dark mannequin draped in a white bridal-like shawl. Set against the petit-bourgeois finery of a well-tended small town railway station waiting room in that ambiguous twilight-hour time of night/day that characterises so many of Delvaux's paintings, this work presents the enigma of an event that has very recently just passed. Although both the nude and the mannequin are still engaged in the same kind of mysterious dialogue as Lautréamont's celebrated umbrella and sewing machine, the departing train and the pervasive atmosphere of silence suggest that the precise moment of revelation is now hidden.
The formal origins of the painting, as well as perhaps something of its manifest mystery or enigma, lie in the work of Giorgio de Chirico. It was de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of the Street of 1914 that had first awoken Delvaux in the earlier 1930s to a full realisation of the poetic possibilities of painting and which led to the radical transformation of his art. Indeed, such was de Chirico's influence that Delvaux often directly transcribed elements from de Chirico's paintings into the framework of his own work. The figure of the little girl with the hoop running happily towards the ominous shadow of the statue in an Italian piazza from de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of the Street for example, was transformed by Delvaux into a figure based on his own childhood memories. In Delvaux's paintings, this unknown faceless young girl, sometimes with her double, is often shown entering with wonderment and shy curiosity into the strange world of trams, trains, railway yards and stations that Delvaux himself had loved as a boy. In these works an atmosphere of expectation and of impending awakening is magically created through such a conjunction of imagery.
Le nu et le mannequin is, in many ways, the metaphysical development of another and altogether different de Chirico painting. The source of this sumptuous depiction of a strangely erotic encounter between a full-grown woman, a mannequin, a station clock and a train is almost certainly a de Chirico painting like The Soothsayer's Recompense of 1913 in which a recurring subject of de Chirico's art, a Roman statue of the sleeping Ariadne, has itself been 'surrealized'. In Le nu et le mannequin the stone figure of Ariadne has transformed herself into a full-bodied, flesh and blood Venus, languidly lazing on a couch in a way that suggests a sense of sexual fulfillment. The figure of such a sleeping Venus was a recurring subject in Delvaux's art during the 1940s, and the dreamlike landscapes that surround her can often be seen as her own hypnotic revelations. In these works it is as if the young girl from the tram stations has grown up and matured to an understanding of the erotic mystery inherent within all life. A hint of this is given in this painting by the highly Freudian disappearance of the smoking train into a dark valley between two mountains. This clearly sexual imagery lends the mysterious encounter between the nude and the mannequin its erotic charge, while the unlikely nocturnal bloom of the flowers and the plants convey an uplifting sense that here in this otherwise deserted foyer, all is well.