The Belgian painter filled his canvases with puzzling night-time scenes of skeletons, train stations and naked women, yet distanced himself from Surrealism and psychoanalytic interpretation
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) was born in Wanze in southern Belgium. While his parents hoped he would follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a legal career, his aunt encouraged his leanings towards literature and music. A compromise was reached, and the young Delvaux was allowed to study architecture. To his parents’ dismay — but Delvaux’s relief — he failed his mathematics exam. But his grounding in classical architecture and perspective provided him with a skilled hand for draughtsmanship, as is clear in works such as Le temple (1949), sold at Christie’s in London in 2012 for £1,609,250.
After enrolling at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels to study painting, Delvaux finally graduated at the age of 27. It took almost three more years before he felt confident enough to set up his own studio in his parents’ Brussels home.
It wasn’t until the diffident artist’s mother died in 1933, when he was in his mid-thirties, that he felt comfortable exhibiting his painting of a sleeping Venus, inspired by a mechanical model he had spotted in a wax museum. It was a theme to which he would return again and again; the work, however, was severely criticised, and Delvaux destroyed the image, along with many other paintings from the period.
The majority of Delvaux’s motifs were inspired by adolescent experiences: encountering the grinning skull of a man’s skeleton at school; discovering the poetry of Homer; taking the train to the Sonian Forest near Brussels to paint en plein air while on military service. The artist once said of these icons: ‘Youthful impressions, fixed once and for all in the mind, influence you all your life.’
Childhood summers spent at the house shared by his four aunts also made a lasting impact on the artist. Their lace collars and tightly corseted long dresses provided a deep well of memories from which Delvaux would draw throughout his life. Étude pour le tableau ’Les Rivales’, offered at Christie’s on 4 March 2022, typifies his fixation with period dress.
In 1926 Delvaux visited an exhibition of work by the pioneer of Surrealism, Giorgio de Chirico, whose sparse vistas and dark palettes made a deep impression on him. The works of René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst also played a key role in shaping his aesthetic. But, wary of ‘isms’, Delvaux refused any formal association with the Surrealists or any other artistic circle.
Nevertheless, the influence of the Surrealists on Delvaux’s work is unmissable. In his 1970 work, Le soir tombe, Delvaux’s fascination for fantasy and the juxtaposition of seemingly anachronistic elements echo the forces that shaped the Surrealist landscape half a century earlier. A composition of eerily assembled figures caught in a trance in a setting at the cusp of classical antiquity and modernism, Delvaux has created a sense of Surreal beauty, melancholy, and ‘poetic shock’ that is unique to his oeuvre.
The French artist, who penned the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924, admired Delvaux’s adoption of ‘poetic shock’: a technique coined by early 20th-century Surrealists who cut up poems to create incomprehensible verses.
Delvaux used the method to bring together disparate subjects, forms and ideas in his pictures, resulting in bizarre visual narratives.
After the Germans occupied Belgium from the spring of 1940, Delvaux refused to exhibit his art publicly. The works he painted under occupation depict the despair he witnessed first-hand.
One of Delvaux’s best-known images from the period, Sleeping Venus, painted in 1944 and now in the Tate collection, was executed as bombs rained down on Brussels at night. Referring to the work’s depiction of women wailing in despair behind a sleeping goddess, Delvaux said: ‘I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus.’ In 2014 Christie’s sold another of Delvaux’s wartime depictions of Venus, La Vénus endormie (1943), for £1,986,500.
Delvaux steadily gained international recognition after the war. He was invited to take part in the 1954 Venice Biennale, where his Crucifixion, showing Christ on the cross as a skeleton between two other crucified skeletons, caused Cardinal Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) to condemn them as heretical and ban the clergy from attending the show.
The artist said of his work, ‘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.’
Despite claiming to find the founder of psychoanalyis’s ideas unimportant, Delvaux’s paintings are often described as visual representations of Freudian dreams. His canvases are replete with nudes and erotic motifs, like the somnambulist figures in La tente rouge (1966), where parts of the work appear transparent and almost ghostly – as if they represent figments of the imagination or distant memories.
In 1987 Delvaux was asked to explain the role of the male figure in his 1962 painting, Le sabbat. He responded: ‘Any plausible explanations are necessarily fanciful, including any I might put forward myself. I am convinced that the explanation of the picture is written in the picture itself. Anyone who cares to do so can find his own personal interpretation, nothing more. I can suggest a number of possible explanations.’
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After painting well into his eighties, Delvaux passed away in 1994, aged 96, in Veurne, Belgium. In accordance with his wishes, the Paul Delvaux Foundation and Museum had been established in St. Idesblad more than a decade earlier.
Delvaux’s imagery has influenced artists working in other genres: his paintings inspired Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s 1983 symphony To the Edge of Dream, while the author J.G. Ballard referenced Delvaux’s work in many of his novels.