By Ben Luke, July 1, 2013
Though never formally a surrealist, Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) owed much to that great movement. Until 1934 the Belgian was an expressionist but an encounter with works by his compatriot René Magritte and particularly Giorgio de Chirico in the surrealist show in Brussels in 1934 proved an epiphany.
Liberated by surrealism’s irrationality, potent atmosphere and eroticism, Delvaux found his mature style, and 21 works from this period until the Seventies feature in this show, remarkably the first in the UK.
De Chirico’s presence is undeniable — in almost every work he leaps about between the industrial modern world and classicism. Women, often nude, are his principal protagonists, with exaggerated classical profiles, all huge eyes and straight noses. Yet with their warm-toned flesh and bodily hair, they’re far more of their time than goddesses plucked from antiquity.
Other bodies enter his world — he paints himself in Le Récitant (The Narrator, 1937), hypnotised in a dreamscape, while skeletons appear increasingly in his post-war work.
But several tableaux of female nudes are the most memorable. Les nymphes se baignant (Bathing Nymphs, 1938) alone features eight women, all isolated from each other, most amid grey, turbulent waves, surrounded by a ruined temple, a theatre set, a mountainous landscape and a distant train. At times, these paintings are undone by this collision of elements but their ambition is engaging. Delvaux may not be comparable to the surrealist masters but he is enduringly fascinating.