Paul Delvaux Surreal Lot 104
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more SOLD BY THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)

Le village des sirènes

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
Le village des sirènes
signed and dated 'P. DELVAUX 4-42' (lower right); titled 'LE VILLAGE DES SIRÈNES' (on the reverse)
oil on panel
41 3/8 x 50 in. (105 x 127 cm.)
Painted in 1942
Théo Léger, Brussels, by 1944.
Claude Spaak, Choisel.
Sidney Janis, New York, by 1948.
Mr & Mrs Maurice E. Culberg, Chicago.
Art Institute of Chicago (inv. no. 5173), a gift from the above.
R. Dupierreux, 'Paul Delvaux, peintre de rêve', in Le soir, Brussels, 8 January 1945, p. 2.
A. Eggermont, 'Les arts plastiques', in Le Thyrse, Brussels, 15 February 1945, p. 52.
R. Gaffe, Paul Delvaux ou les rêves éveillés, Brussels, 1945 (illustrated pl. 14).
Horizon, vol. XIII, no. 73, London, January 1946 (illustrated opposite p. 32).
E. Langui, 'Het schandaal Delvaux', in Kroniek van Kunst en Kultuur, vol. 8, no. 2, Amsterdam, 1947, p. 54.
C. Spaak, Paul Delvaux, Antwerp 1948, p. 10 (illustrated pl. 9).
E. Langui, Paul Delvaux, Venice, 1949, p. 13 (illustrated pl. XXII).
'Chicago's Fabulous Collectors: Art Institute Announces It Will Get Treasures from Their Homes', in Life, vol. 33, no. 17, New York, 27 October 1952, p. 97 (illustrated; titled 'The Sirens').
The Atlantic Monthly, Boston, vol. 193, no. 4, April 1954, no. 4, p. 149 (illustrated).
P. Dewalhens, Delvauxiana, Paris, 1955.
P.A. de Bock, 'Bij een tentoostelling te Oostende: Paul Delvaux pictor', in De Periscoop, Brussels, July - August 1962, no. 9-10, p. 2.
P.A. de Bock, 'Paul Delvaux pictor', in exh. cat., Paul Delvaux, Ostend, 1962.
S. Houbart-Wilkin, 'Paul Delvaux, peintre surréaliste ou classique de la surréalité', in exh. cat., Paul Delvaux, Liège, 1962, p. 5.
Het Belang van Limburg, Hasselt, 27 December 1963 (illustrated).
Sexologia-lexikon, Geneva, 1963, p. 94.
P.A. de Bock, Paul Delvaux: Der Mensch, der Maler, Hamburg, 1965, p. 43 (illustrated pl. 16).
P.A. de Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1967, pp. 115 & 291 (illustrated pl. 51; with incorrect medium).
P. Demol, 'Lettre: septembre 1967', in P.A. de Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1967, p. 284.
J.P. Hodin, 'Surrealism', in Encyclopedia of World Art, vol. XIII, New York, 1967, no. 729.
P. Poirer, 'Le maître Delvaux au Musée d'Ixelles', in L'Eventail, Brussels, 24 November 1967.
S. Houbart-Wilkin, 'De tekenkunst van Paul Delvaux', in exh. cat., Paul Delvaux tekeningen, Rotterdam, 1968.
Jardin des arts, Paris, May 1969 (illustrated on the cover).
Kwik, Brussels, 12-18 June 1969 (detail illustrated).
E. Langui, 'Le monde de Paul Delvaux', in exh. cat., Rétrospective Paul Delvaux, Paris, 1969.
W.S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, London, 1969, no. 332, pp. 315 & 481 (illustrated fig. 332, p. 318).
J. Meuris, 7 dialogues avec Paul Delvaux accompagnés de 7 lettres imaginaires, Paris, 1971, pp. 23-25 & 28.
A. Terrasse, Paul Delvaux, Paris, 1972, p. 13 (illustrated pp. 14-15; titled 'Mermaids' Village').
A. Terrasse & J. Saucet, Paul Delvaux, Berlin, 1972 (illustrated pp. 14-15 & detail illustrated on the cover).
J. Vovelle, Le surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972, p. 187.
Y. Inoue & S. Takashina, 'Le surréalisme', in Les grands maîtres de la peinture moderne, vol. 22, Tokyo, 1973, p. 122 (illustrated pl. 52).
F.C. Legrand, 'Introduction', in exh. cat., Painters of the Mind's Eye: Belgian Symbolists and Surrealists, New York & Houston, 1974, p. 17.
M. Butor, J. Clair & S. Soubart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Brussels, 1975, no. 115, p. 194 (illustrated; with incorrect medium).
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux, December 1944 - January 1945, no. 26 (illustrated).
London, Redfern Gallery, Paul Delvaux, April - May 1946.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, 5th Anniversary Exhibition, September - October 1953, no. 9 (illustrated).
Mechelen, Cultuurcentrum, L'oeuvre d'art à la portée de tous, March - April 1960, p. 14 (illustrated; titled 'Le golfe du village d'amour'); this exhibition later travelled to Verviers, Musée des Beaux-Arts, April - May 1960.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, 25 Years of Janis, October - November 1973, no. 29 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

‘Journalists and critics ask me about the meaning of my paintings and come up with numerous interpretations. Let me say that here [in Le village des sirènes] I have faithfully reproduced one of my dreams’ (Paul Delvaux, quoted in B. Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, pp. 106-107).

‘Woman is the being that casts the greatest shadow or the greatest light in our dreams…’ (Charles Baudelaire, quoted in G. Carels and C. van Deun, Paul Delvaux: His Life, Belgium, 2004, p. 95).

Filled by a strange, electric atmosphere, Le village des sirènes is an absorbing and poetic work that perfectly encapsulates the intense mystery of Paul Delvaux’s unique artistic vision. Created in 1942, at the very height of the German occupation of Belgium, this exquisitely enigmatic painting portrays a puzzling, almost otherworldly scene, in which a group of elegant, beautiful women sit completely still along a gently curving street, each seemingly lost in their own thoughts and oblivious to their surroundings. Caught in a trance-like state, they stare aimlessly into space, their hands clasped before them, resting gently on their knees. The overwhelming silence that radiates from the scene, combined with the inherent stillness of these women, offers a startling contrast to the chaos of the war that was raging in Europe at this time. Delvaux chose not to exhibit publicly during the Occupation, and instead retreated to his studio to work intensely on his paintings. Despite his isolation and the oppressive atmosphere that enveloped Brussels while under German rule, Delvaux was struck by a burst of creative energy that lasted for the duration of the conflict, and which led him to produce some of the most important works of his entire career.

In his 1941 article ‘The Artistic Genesis and Perspectives of Surrealism,’ André Breton perfectly captured a sense of Delvaux’s intense fascination with the female form, writing that the artist had transformed the universe ‘to make it the empire of Woman…’ (Breton, quoted in ibid, p. 225). His compositions often focus on enigmatic, otherworldly female figures, placed in dream-like situations, where their intentions and the motivations for their actions often remain a complete mystery to the viewer. Indeed, it is the presence of the statuesque, ethereal women at its heart that lends Le village des sirènes its spellbinding power. The haunting stillness of their poses and their entranced demeanour lends the scene a distinctively disquieting atmosphere, a feeling enhanced by the sense of repetition in their forms as they line the street. The group of women have quite similar appearances to one another, from the way their hair cascades in loose waves past their shoulders, to their delicate features and almost porcelain complexions. They do not turn to look at us, remaining completely passive as they sit elegantly in their beautiful white chairs, facing forward and gazing into space, their identical poses visually echoing one another along the length of the street. In contrast to the majority of Delvaux’s female protagonists at this time, the figures remain fully clothed, their matching dresses modestly covering their entire form, in a manner that harks back to the 1936 composition Le cortège en dentelles. While the lightweight material clings to the sensuous curves of the women’s bodies in the present composition, their long sleeves, high necks and full skirts ensure that only the women’s faces and hands are revealed to us. The manner in which the fabric pools in great folds at their feet, meanwhile, allows the figures to conceal more than just their nakedness from prying eyes. For, as the title suggests, these beauties are not women at all, but rather a group of mermaids, their fins hidden from view by the folds of their dresses.

In the background of the painting a number of these mythical creatures can be seen on the beach, their hybrid forms completely visible as they approach the lapping waves of the sea, their fins flashing in the sunlight. The legend of the mermaid occupied a powerful place within the public imagination, sharing many characteristics with the sirens of Greek mythology who famously tempted both Odysseus and the Argonauts during their epic voyages. Throughout history, these creatures have been portrayed as dangerously beautiful women, who would hypnotise men on passing ships with the beauty of their enchanting song. Completely spellbound by these sirens, the men would be drawn to their doom, leaping into the water and usually drowning in their efforts to reach these magical creatures. Aided by the sharp diagonal of the sheer cliff-face that abuts the houses on the left and gradual slope of the street, Delvaux links the clothed women in the foreground to these magical mermaids in the distance, visually suggesting their transformation from seemingly normal figures to magical beings. Indeed, recalling the visions which lay behind his creation of Le village des sirènes, Delvaux described this aspect of the scene: ‘The sea in the distance, women who wait in front of their dwellings; they are dressed now but will shed their clothes when they enter the water by the beach in the background… It is an oneiric subject. I felt the silence, the mystery, of these women sitting in front of their doors, awaiting one knows not what. But when they reach the sea they show their true colours. There are, therefore, two simultaneous actions in the painting. I was trying to convey the impression of a passage from one to another’ (Delvaux, quoted in ibid, pp. 106-107).

As the street gently curves out of sight, a lone male figure wearing a bowler hat and dark suit is just visible, strolling downhill towards the mermaids, as if drawn by their enchanting calls. While this small figure becomes almost lost in the powerful procession of waiting women along the street, his inclusion in the composition is nonetheless a powerful one. The bowler-hatted man was a common leitmotif within Delvaux’s art of the period, inspired by a passer-by whom he had seen from his studio window. ‘Who is he? Simply a man in the street who passed by here every day,’ Delvaux recalled. ‘He was probably a clerical worker of some sort or another, an employee going to and returning from work… I observed him several times. He impressed me and when I began this painting his presence had become indispensable. He came into being without any justification other than that he showed an ordinary man going about his daily business in a beleaguered city. His very mediocrity tells us something’ (Delvaux, quoted in ibid, p. 97). This figure, plucked from the ordinary world the artist inhabited, offers a startling juxtaposition to the beautiful, feminine figures and hybrid creatures that populate this village. Discussing the importance of these male figures, Delvaux explained: ‘Their intrusion into my paintings, particularly alongside female figures… is partly intended to create a shock, a shock that results precisely from that very juxtaposition’ (Delvaux, quoted in Paul Delvaux 1897- 1994, exh. cat., Brussels, 1997, p. 23). With his presence, this ordinary figure heightens the sense of strangeness within the scene, and emphasises the mysterious nature of this mystical town and its inhabitants.

Delvaux’s proclamation that the composition was plucked from his own rich dream world, meanwhile, may suggest that the artist intended this male figure to act as something of a self-portrait, perhaps linking his own feelings of dislocation and bewilderment in the city during the war to those of the lonely, solitary man as he travels through this eerie dreamscape, helplessly pulled by an unknown force towards the strange women by the waterside. The bowler-hatted man appears again in the artist’s monumental 1947 composition Les grandes sirènes, now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Here, a similar procession of seated women in a classical cityscape lead the eye towards a beach in the background, filled, once again, with a crowd of magical sea-nymphs. The man stands directly before the mermaids, entranced by their magical forms, observing them as they rush towards the sea. This scene appears as a direct progression of the subject of Le village des sirènes, suggesting that the male figure has made his way through this enigmatic city to reach the shoreline and face the mermaids. However, the question of what will happen next is left unresolved, his fate remains unknown, in a manner that compounds the uncanniness of the scene and the mystery at its heart.

The disconcerting juxtapositions and disquieting atmosphere of these works reveal a strong affinity with the art of Giorgio de Chirico, whose metaphysical paintings proved a revelation to Delvaux during his formative years. The artist later recalled the impact the Italian artist had on his compositions: ‘It was on seeing the work of de Chirico that I discovered that there was an extra dimension to painting. He showed me that there is a poetic element to painting... The empty towns and silent people of de Chirico corresponded to something inside me. De Chirico’s long shadows, the evening landscape, and the removal van in the foreground, the shadow of the little girl playing with a hoop… It is a form of poetry. Not only is it beautiful to look at, and hence satisfying to an artist’s eye, but it gives one something to think about, to dream about’ (Delvaux, quoted in B. Emerson, op. cit., p. 60). While Delvaux may have attended an early de Chirico exhibition in his hometown in 1927, it was his exposure to the artist’s work in the 1934 Minotaure exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts that left such a powerful impression on him. De Chirico’s use of uncanny combinations of everyday objects and creation of surreal situations proved a catalyst for Delvaux’s painting, opening his eyes to a new means of creating art and setting him on his own distinct path of Surrealism.

The compelling scene portrayed in Le village des sirènes transports the viewer to an otherworldly location, at once familiar and yet entirely surreal. The buildings that line the street contain traces of a number of anachronistic architectural styles, progressing from the regular, horizontal detailing of the stone façades on the left hand side, to the more rustic stonework of the building seen as the road curves to the right, on to the distinctly classical building further along the promenade. Playing with the contrasts between these different architectural profiles, Delvaux creates a sense of transformation as the eye moves through the composition down towards the shoreline, perhaps alluding to the transformation of the women into mermaids. The jagged peaks of the surrounding landscape, meanwhile, seem completely incongruous with the highly controlled architectural environment of the streetscape, offering another series of juxtapositions that contribute to the interplay of similarity and difference that endows the scene with such a strange atmosphere.

The way that Delvaux structures this environment appears to echo the strict perspectival geometry of early Renaissance painting, as seen in Masaccio’s frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. The stark profile of the peaks and the curving beach lapped by gentle ultramarine waves convey a similar feeling to the setting found in the Renaissance master’s famed painting, The Tribute Money. Delvaux’s barren landscapes, here in the distance and prevalent throughout his works of the late thirties and early forties, may have been inspired by compositions from the early stages of the Italian quattrocento, such as those of Masaccio and Mantegna, which he perhaps saw on one of his journeys through Italy during the closing years of the 1930s. The artist’s encounters with endless classical monuments and frescoes during these voyages through Florence, Rome and Naples encouraged him to add a new richness and architectural complexity to his painting, with the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum proving to be particularly fruitful ground for Delvaux’s imagination.

The importance of Le village des sirènes within Delvaux’s oeuvre is clear from its impressive provenance and important exhibition history. The painting was first seen publicly in the seminal retrospective of the artist’s work held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, in 1944. Organised by Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens, this exhibition launched Delvaux to national prominence in the weeks immediately following the country’s liberation, and ensured his renown as a leading member of the Belgian Surrealist movement.

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