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3 June 2013
PAUL DELVAUX by Valery Oisteanu
The Brooklyn Rail, June 2013
Paul Delvaux (1897 – 1994) at Blain|DiDonna is a mini retrospective of a major Belgian Surrealist whose last exhibition in New York was at the Julien Levy gallery in 1946 and culminated in scandal. Back then Delvaux’s work created quite a stir; despite good reviews the show was raided by the police, and all of the artist’s pictures were confiscated and declared obscene.
Delvaux’s erotic art does not offend anymore; instead it attracts an asthetic scrutiny in the course of a drastic re-evaluation. In his current exhibition 20 hypnotic oil paintings and watercolors made between the mid ’30s and the mid ’60s adorn the walls. A lavish purple velvet-lined catalogue invites us to step into a “Voyage à la Delvaux,” which is also the title of an accompanying essay by Anna Swinbourne. Her text reveals the artist’s passion for fantasy and fabulous places.
A pivotal figure of 20th century art, Delvaux studied architecture and academic painting at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. At that time, in his 20s, he was painting in a naturalistic, Post-Impressionistic style. When he saw the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and a Surrealist show in Brussels in 1934 (which included his colleague, Rene Magritte), the young Delvaux promptly changed course and began painting his dreams with abandonment.
Delvaux’s narratives are set in anamorphic temples, alongside train stations populated by voluptuous naked young women with big almond eyes. During visits to Italy, his study of the Quattrocento painters confirmed his taste for linear perspective, architectural elements, and women of ideal proportions. All are on display in the oil painting “Woman with a Rose” (1936), whose female subject bends down to pluck a flower in a corridor, while another watches from a distance. The perspective, which leads to an open window overlooking a mountain landscape, creates a masterfully deceptive composition that approaches total three-dimensionality.
The show is subdivided into three galleries; “Le Joie de vivre” (1938) occupies the first. It depicts an elegantly dressed man embracing a naked female partner who is blankly staring at him through big eyes. Meanwhile another nude plays the flute outside the window, wallowing in lush primeval vegetation. This is followed by “Les Nymphes se baignant” (1938) in the second gallery, which offers a wall-size painting that portrays seven nudes tossed in a turbulent sea against an oppressive industrial background. In other pieces hypnotic images are juxtaposed with contemporary objects such as trains—a subject of special interest to Delvaux, who never forgot the wonder he felt as a small child at the sight of the first electric trams in Brussels. All help create an absurd world populated by Stepford wife-like automatons.
The third gallery is dominated by the wall-size painting “Le Sabbat” (1962), a nocturnal cult-like tableaux of sensually burning candles in which seven nudes are gathered around a table. Two of them covered in tree leaves and two engaged in lewd sexual behavior, while a professor wearing a suit watches the scene through a mirror (an image supposedly culled from Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Delvaux’s favorite childhood book). It all creates a mysterious theater of the absurd.
Although André Breton invited Delvaux into the Surrealist fold, published his work, and selected him twice for group shows, Delvaux’s Belgian contemporaries were not so open to his art. Furthermore, avant-gardists like the painter Magritte and the poet/photographer/collagist/filmmaker Marcel Mariën objected to his overt oneiric, symbolist style and lack of political commitment—hence his total absence from the Brussels Surrealist group. Nonetheless, Delvaux remained a lifelong participant in international Surrealist shows, including exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam, London (1938), and Mexico (1940).
His nephew Charles Van Deun helped the artist establish a Paul Delvaux Foundation in an old inn on the northern seaside of Belgium in the magical village of Saint-Idesbald. From old photographs we see Delvaux standing in his studio, looking like a fisherman in a sleeveless shirt, a cigarette hanging from his lip, painting mermaids, and daydreaming in a garden full of flowers. Even after he lost his sight, Delvaux continued painting for the last 10 years of his life from memory. This exhibit confirms Delvaux’s exceptional international appeal and it celebrates his world of tacit and tactile sexuality and desire. It is a must-see for all true art lovers.
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