PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
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PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)


PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
signed, dated and inscribed ‘P. DELVAUX ANDERLECHT 7-45’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
61 7/8 x 23 1/2 in. (157 x 59.7 cm.)
Painted in Anderlecht in July 1945
Gustav van Geluwe, Brussels.
Dr Purnal, Brussels.
Mme Jean Krebs, Brussels, by 1971.
Galleria Internazionale, Milan, by 1975.
Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 4 April 1978, lot 40.
Private collection, Belgium, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Private collection, Belgium, by whom acquired from the above circa 1998; sale, Christie's, London, The Art of the Surreal, 4 February 2008, lot 180.
Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Acquired from the above by the present owners in 2008.
M. Butor, J. Clair & S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux: catalogue de l'œuvre peint, Brussels, 1975, no. 159, p. 213 (illustrated).
Ostende, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux, July - August 1962, no. 76.
Bordeaux, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Surréalisme, May - September 1971, no. 57, p. 49 (titled 'Squelette à l'Atelier').
Charleroi, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Le Hainaut, terre de surréalisme, October 1971, no. 19.
Knokke-Heist, Christian Fayt Art Gallery, Selection I, June - July 1978, no. 16.
New York, Cheim & Reid, I am as you will be - The Skeleton in Art, September - November 2007.
San Francisco, Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern, Exultation: Sex, Death and Madness in Eight Surrealist Masterworks, 2011.
London & New York, Blain di Donna Gallery, Paul Delvaux, 2013, p. 33.
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. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Ottavia Marchitelli
Ottavia Marchitelli Senior Specialist, Head of The Art of The Surreal Sale

Lot Essay

In Paul Delvaux’s Squelette, the titular skeleton appears almost to step from the canvas and into our world. The immediacy of this effect is only heightened by the height of the vertical canvas, which is over five feet tall, teetering on the brink of life size. Delvaux has depicted the skeleton posed in a naturalistic manner, perfectly tapping into the hazy, heady sense of uncertainty, ambiguity and mystery that informs the visual poetry for which his paintings are so renowned. It is a reflection of the widespread recognition of the visual intensity of Squelette that it has featured in so many exhibitions, many of them dating to the artist’s own lifetime. It is also a mark of the quality and importance of this picture that it was formerly in the collection of the successful fashion house founder Gustave Van Geluwe who, as well as being an active sponsor and patron of the arts, was a friend and neighbour of Delvaux. Works from Van Geluwe’s collection now adorn the walls of numerous museums, not least in his native Belgium.
Instead of the automaton-like stillness of the nudes that populate many paintings by Delvaux, in Squelette we see a relatively early exploration of one of his other key themes, the skeleton. But while during the coming years Delvaux would depict skeletons in a number of poses and guises against his customary fantastical backdrops, here he has shown the bare bones of this subject, exploring the visual potency of the subject in the context of what seems to be his own studio. The deliberate understatedness of the surroundings contrasts with the flamboyant classical scenery that provides the backdrop to so many of the more dramatic works that Delvaux painted. Yet that same understated quality is also countered by the sheer scale of Squelette.
Squelette was painted in 1945, only months after the Liberation of Belgium. During the years of the Second World War, the skeleton – already a feature in his work – began to make a significant reappearance, doubtless informed by the atmosphere of oppression and sometimes terror. Discussing another painting of the period, Delvaux explained that the war did not appear directly in his paintings, yet it infused his works: ‘I think that it was inspired by the anxiety of the time, a period of upheaval. I simply wanted to express this upheaval in my own way' (P. Delvaux quoted in B. Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, p. 97). Just as Picasso’s own works during the latter years of the war and its aftermath often featured human and animal skulls, so these ossified elements appeared in the paintings of Delvaux, but with a very different effect. His always gave the impression of a scene unfolding – or a skilful mise-en-scène – with the skeletons as dynamic actors, not just still life elements. During the 1930s, Delvaux had introduced skeletons into various works, often studying examples in local museums. Now, against the backdrop of the war, they became bystanders and characters in works featuring the classical scenery and nudes for which Delvaux is arguably best known, such as La ville rouge of 1943-44 (Museum Bojmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) and La Vénus endormie of 1944 (Tate, London). During the years that followed the Second World War, Delvaux placed an increasing focus on skeletons within his compositions, not least in his recreations of religious scenes such as Ecce homo (La descente de croix) of 1949 and Crucifixion of 1953 (Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique).
The skeleton motif had long haunted Delvaux, and indeed initially tormented him: when at school, he avoided classes held in the Music Room where a skeleton was shown in a vitrine. Later, when Delvaux had one of his most epiphanic moments visiting the Spitzner Museum, which was essentially a fairground attraction, he saw a human skeleton juxtaposed with that of an ape, as well as a model of a body with its skin removed, revealing its musculature. It had been at the Spitzner Museum that Delvaux had also seen a waxwork automaton of a nude which had informed the women in his own paintings, whose stillness allows them to occupy a middle ground between the animate and inanimate. This allowed Delvaux to explore the uncanny. Similarly, in Squelette, the lifelike position of the titular skeleton allows it to echo the movements of the living.
Squelette pays apparent tribute to Vincent van Gogh’s Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette of 1886 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). That painting shows a skeleton with a smoking cigarette hanging from its mouth, creating the impression of a portrait, lending the bones a veneer of sentience and agency that is shared by Squelette. The fact that Delvaux set his picture in the studio allows him to perform a skilled balancing act, stripping away the artifice and fantasy with which he is associated while also creating a work that performs as a proxy self-portrait, with the skeleton occupying the artist’s place. In this, Squelette echoes the celebrated Skeleton Painter of 1896 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp) by his compatriot James Ensor. But where Ensor presented the viewer with a painter in a suit with a skull where the head should be, Delvaux shows a skeleton that may be either prop or protagonist. This potent ambiguity lends Squelette its intense visual impact as it hovers between familiar and unfamiliar, possible and impossible, life and afterlife.

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