In my last blog I looked at the life of André Masson, the French-born Belgian Surrealist and one of his paintings, which in some ways mirrored the physical and mental suffering he had to endure for most of his life. Today my featured artist is the Belgian Surrealist painter, Paul Delvaux would never accept that he was a Surrealist or that his art followed the dictates of Surrealism. In fact Delvaux was totally averse to being labelled with and sort of “–ism”. Delvaux’s life could not be more different to that of Masson. Delvaux’s dreamlike, somewhat gentle paintings I believe reflected his inner peace and contentment.
He was born in September 1897 in the home of his grandparents in Antheit-les-Huy, a small town in eastern Belgium. He was the elder son of an affluent bourgeois family. He was his mother’s favourite son and some say she molly-coddled and over-protected him. His father was an Appeal Court lawyer and his younger brother André followed in his father’s footsteps and became part of the Belgian judicial system.
As a young child, in the summer he would go and stay with his four maiden aunts who lived in the nearby town of Wanze. One of these ladies, his Aunt Adele, encouraged his early love of music, literature and art and when he was ten years old, for his first communion gift, she gave him a beautifully illustrated copy of Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Centre of the Earth. This edition contained detailed engravings and illustrations by the French painter Édouard Riou, who collaborated with Jules Verne on many of his novels. In Guy Carels 2004 biography of Delvaux entitled, Paul Delvaux – His Life, he quotes Delavaux’s comments about his youth and his passion for reading adventure novels:
“…My overriding passion was the books of Jules Verne…. I was completely fascinated by the engraving of Riou showing Otto Lidenbrock the wise geologist from Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I reproduced this for the first time in 1939 in the Phases de la Lune I (Phases of the Moon I)….”
Delvaux attended the Athénée de Saint-Gilles School in Brussels, where he studied both Latin and Greek and it was at this time that he became acquainted with Homer’s great epic, the Odyssey with its adventures of Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca. It is often said that childhood memories play a part in one’s future life but one recollection by Delvaux of his early schooling was to have an influence on many of his later works. It was one of his earliest memories of the music room of his primary school in which there were two full-sized skeletons, that of a man and a monkey. The sight of the two skeletons frightened him and he never forgot them and skeletons would often appear in his art work.
Such tales of adventure featured prominently in his early childhood sketches. He completed his regular school education at the age of eighteen and much to his father’s disappointment it was obvious that Paul was not going to enter the legal system. His parents decided that if their son wasn’t to study law then he should study architecture and so they had him enroll on the architecture course run by the Brussels Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Paul Delvaux did not enjoy the course, which consisted of copying the plans and elevations of classical buildings but little did he realise at the time that this training would play a major part in his future works of art. Much to his parents’ disappointment, but to his own relief, Delvaux had to abandon the course as he failed to pass the exam in mathematics, which was a prerequisite for the continuation of the course. His time on the course was not completely wasted as his understanding of linear perspective like the classical architecture was to feature in many of his future paintings.
Paul Delvaux had always wanted to study art so that he could take it up professionally although that was not the future his parents had in mind. His stroke of good fortune came in the summer of 1919 when he was almost twenty-two years of age. He was on a family holiday at the Belgium seaside resort town of Knokke-le-Zoute. One day whilst painting a seascape watercolour he was noticed by a professional artist who was so enamoured by his work he spoke to Paul’s parents and persuaded them to let their son attend the Brussels Académie des Beaux-Arts and pursue his desire to become a professional artist. They reluctantly agreed and Paul Delvaux enrolled in the decorative painting class, which was run by Constant Montald, who also taught the featured artist of my last blog, Andre Masson and it was whilst on this course that Delvaux would once again immerse himself into the world of ancient Greece and Rome. Another of his artistic instructors at the Académie was Jean Delville, the Belgian Symbolist painter.
Delvaux remained at the Academy for four years and during this time he completed almost a hundred works of art, mainly of the naturalistic landscape genre, often depicting scenes of his home town on the river Meuse, with its castle, Le Fort de Huy, perched on a high cliff above the river. One of Delvaux’s early works was entitled For Auderghem, which he completed in 1923 and depicts the railway bridge in the town of Auderghem, which is located to the southeast of Brussels, and lies along the Woluwe valley at the entrance to Forêt de Soignes. In 1925 Delvaux held his first solo exhibition and two years later set up his first studio in his parent’s house. At this time in his life he had no interest in Modern art, which he considered to be merely a “hoax” and instead, preferred the works of the Flemish Expressionists such as Frits van den Berghe, Gustave de Smet and Constant Permeke, whose paintings featured themes such as the countryside and village life.
All this was to change in the 1930’s when he veered towards the art of the Surrealists. He was never a member of André Breton’s group but was greatly influenced by the dreamlike works of Giorgio de Chirico which he saw in a Paris exhibition in 1926. He was particularly interested in de Chirico’s painting style known as Pittura Metafisica, (Metaphysical art) which had been extremely popular between 1911 and 1920. Another artist, a fellow countryman, whose art was to have a great influence on Delvaux, was René Magritte. Delvaux found his work both amusing if somewhat disconcerting.
Delvaux’s work took on strangeness about it from the mid 1930’s with the introduction of nude figures in a world which the intimacy of nakedness is portrayed in very public settings. There was none of the automatism we saw in Masson’s paintings in my last blog. Delvaux’s works seem to be, although bizarre, very calculated and lack the spontaneity of Masson’s “subconscious” works.
Delvaux’s mother died in 1933 and four years later, his father died and it was in that same year, 1937, that he married Suzanne Purnal. The marriage was a disaster. However, some believe the emotional turmoil of their marriage resulted in Delvaux’s best works. Delvaux had been very much in love with Anne-Marie de Martelaere but the relationship foundered because of his parents’ disapproval of her. Whether his marriage to Suzanne was a “rebound” thing, one may never know. However, ten years later in 1947, completely by chance whilst visiting St Idesbald, he met his first-love Anne-Marie who had never married. Delvaux left his wife Suzanne and went to live with Anne-Marie and the pair married in October 1952.
In 1950, Paul Delvaux became professor of painting at the Ecole Nationale de la Cambre in Brussels and he would teach there until 1962. In 1952 he received the commission to create the wall frescos at the Ostend casino. In 1952 Delvaux created one of his most controversial works, The Crucifixion. The painting which is in the Royal Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels shows a skeleton Christ on a cross between two skeletal crucified robbers. Standing beneath the crucified trio is the centurion also depicted as a skeleton. When this work was shown at the 1954 Venice Biennale it caused a furore. Cardinal Roncalli, who would later become Pope John XXIII, was horrified and Delvaux was accused of blasphemy. However Delvaux was unrepentant stating:
“…Through the skeleton, I represent a different kind of being in a kind of medieval mystery play which is perhaps profane, but never profanatory – the idea of sacrilege never entered my mind – it was put there by others…”
This skeleton painting is considered to be one of the most powerful and the most unforgettable in contemporary art.
Paul Delvaux received many honours during his life. In 1955, he received the Italian Reggio Emilia-award. In 1956, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium. In 1966 he received the Belgian State Prize for his work of art together and he was appointed Chairman of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In 1982 the Paul Delvaux Museum opened in Saint Idesbald. Delvaux died in Veurne, Belgium in 1994, at the age of 97.
Delvaux painted three versions of his Sleeping Venus. The first he completed in 1932. It is thought that the influence on the artist for this depiction was a visit in 1932 when he visited the Brussels Fair at which he came across the Pierre Spitzner’s Grand Musée Anatomique et Ethnologique, a travelling museum run by Pierre Spitzner, which was a sort of travelling wax museum. The centrepiece of the exhibition was a wax anatomical model of a sleeping woman, which opened to reveal her internal organs. This bizarre Spitzner Sleeping Venus had a mechanical movement which was to emulate breath. As if by magic, her chest rose and fell as she lay there, dressed in her white nightgown. Delvaux didn’t exhibit the work until after his mother died, in 1933. The painting received poor reviews and later Delvaux would destroy it.
A second Sleeping Venus was completed by Delvaux in 1943.
My featured painting today was his final version of Sleeping Venus, which he completed in 1944. The setting is a Greco-Roman one. The darkly coloured work is a dream-like depiction. In the centre foreground, in a strange half-light, we have a female nude sleeping on a chaise longue. However it is the characters which surround her which are the most puzzling. Are we to believe they are part of the naked woman’s dream? Who are the other naked women in the scene who seem to be visibly moved in prayer? At the foot of the chaise longue we have one of Delvaux’s favourite inclusions – a skeleton (remember his fixation on skeletons since his primary school days). Could it be that the sleeping woman’s dream is about death? But if that was the subject of her subconscious why does she seem to be in a very relaxed state of sleep and not somebody who is experiencing a nightmare as she contemplates her mortality. Another favourite feature often depicted in Delvaux’s paintings is present in this work – that of classical temple-like structures, which harks back to his early classical architectural training. Another common feature in this work which we see in a lot of his other works is his inclusion of a barren lifeless and petrified landscape. To the left of the sleeping Venus is a fully-clothed lady whose pose is similar to that of a catwalk model! Her expression, like many of the women in Delvaux’s works, is impassive. She, like other females in his paintings, does not connect with us. They have a haunting quality about them but as in a number of paintings by Delvaux there is a definite disconnect between the figures depicted. All have a dream-like appearance. It is almost as if he has added figures to the works without any reasoning behind the addition.
Delvaux himself talked about his depictions of the Sleeping Venus in an interview he gave in which he described his first visit to the Spitzner Museum:
“…In the middle of the entrance to the Museum was a woman who was the cashier, then on one side there was a man’s skeleton and the skeleton of a monkey, and on the other side there was a representation of Siamese twins. And in the interior one saw a rather dramatic and terrifying series of anatomical casts in wax which represented the dramas and horrors of syphilis, the dramas, deformations. And all this in the midst of the artificial gaiety of the fair. The contrast was so striking that it made a powerful impression on me … All the ‘Sleeping Venuses’ that I have made, come from there. Even the one in London, at the Tate Gallery. It is an exact copy of the sleeping Venus in the Spitzner Museum, but with Greek temples or dressmaker’s dummies, and the like. It is different, certainly, but the underlying feeling is the same…”
There is no doubt that there is a strange quality to many of Delvaux’s works and art historians have tried to figure out what is going on within the paintings. They give their own interpretations and look for hidden symbolism but maybe we should be guided by the words of the artist himself as to his Sleeping Venus which he completed in 1944 during the Nazi flying-bomb attacks on his home town of Brussels. Delvaux wrote about the painting in a letter:
“…I remember that I placed my picture each evening when the painting session was over perpendicularly to the window thinking naively that, if a bomb should fall, it would be better protected in this position…….It is my belief that, perhaps unconsciously, I have put into the subject of this picture a certain mysterious and intangible disquiet – the classical town, with its temples lit by the moon, with, on the right, a strange building with horses’ heads which I took from the old Royal Circus at Brussels, some figures in agitation with, as contrast, this calm sleeping Venus, watched over by a black dressmaker’s dummy and a skeleton….I tried in this picture for contrast and mystery….It must be added that the psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish… I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus…”
Unlike the works of his contemporary André Masson, which I looked at in the previous blog, although Delvaux’s works with his naked women, skeletons, classical architecture are strange, even bizarre, there is something soothing about them unlike the disturbing works of Masson. Could it be the fact that Masson and Delvaux’s lives were so different and their life experiences translated into the types of works they produced?