Obituary: Paul Delvaux
Thursday 21 July 1994
'THE POETRY is in the painting' is a saying that might be applied to the whole of Paul Delvaux's work. This Belgian master whose creative life spanned the century declared himself to be a poet in paint. His steady production passed through brief phases of Neo-Impressionism, Expressionism and Surrealism before he found his unique style and vision, which rejected all 'isms'. His peculiar interpretation of human existence was drawn from a deep and inexhaustible well of memories reaching back mostly to adolescence, childhood and infancy. He said: 'Youthful impressions, fixed once and for all in the mind, influence you all your life.'
Delvaux developed an obsession with the intensity of childhood recollections as an unfailing of artistic imagination: 'The 'story' any one of my pictures might suggest is really of no interest whatsoever. The one thing that counts for me is the fixing on canvas or paper of the imaginative impulse.'
Paul Delvaux's childhood was particularly rich and fantastic. For one thing, he was born in a land that often seems the true domain of dream-like incongruities. Brussels is a city of ever-surprising juxtapositions of vistas, buildings and natural features all at different angles and heights. For the poet and painter, the whole of Belgium is a succession of visual surprises and absurdities that are a continual refreshment for the eye and an inspiration for the artist. Some of Delvaux's earliest paintings are of his home town on the river Meuse, with its castle perched on a high cliff.
He was the elder son of a prosperous bourgeois family. His father was an Appeal Court lawyer in Brussels, his mother a conventional fin-de-siecle woman who always tried to protect her eternal little boy, shielding him as long as possible from the dangers of the world outside their comfortable home and from the wiles of 'bad' women. Paul's younger brother Andre followed in father's footsteps and became a successful lawyer, while Paul always remained the family pet. He was regarded as naive and a bit simple-minded, but he was acutely aware of the world around him. One of his earliest memories was of two skeletons - a man's and a monkey's - and a full-sized anatomical model that scared him in the music room of his primary school. Skeletons were to become one of the minor themes of his painting.
Holidays were spent at Wanze in the house of his four maiden aunts, prim and tightly corseted, like the Edwardian women in many of his works, with their enormous cartwheel hats, high lace collars and wasp waists, pale figures in a costume museum. Tante Adele was Paul's favourite aunt. She encouraged his early love of music and literature, his interest in textiles, interior decoration and mechanical objects. The rooms in the aunts' house were heavily furnished in Louis Philippe style (early Victorians, with swagger and fringed curtains, plush upholstery, monotonously repetitive floral wallpapers, ottomans, chaises-longues, occasional tables laden with knick-knacks and bric-a-brac of fascinating diversity, classic Greek and Roman decorative elements). These things made deep impressions upon Paul's infant mind, and were to form important backgrounds to his later work. Their fantasies were rooted in haunting realities.
The little boy began to discover the strange beauties of the North Sea coast; in those days its magnificent beaches were almost deserted. At Saint-Idesbald (where the Paul Delvaux Museum now stands) there was only the Hotel des Dunes, two or three small houses and a wooden shack serving as a cafe in summer, while transport was provided by a primitive horse-drawn tram, the first example Paul knew of a conveyance that in more sophisticated forms was to feature in his paintings.
In 1907, another great formative influence was a first communion gift from Aunt Adele of Jules Verne's Voyage to the Centre of the Earth in the sumptuous Hertzel edition illustrated by the obsessively detailed engravings of Edouard Riou. Paul was enraptured by the strange poetic aura of Verne's fantastic voyages, and especially by the characters of Professor Otto Lidenbrock and the astronomer Palmyrin Rosette (from Hector Servadec) who return to haunt his paintings on the Jules Verne theme.
Paul enjoyed his Greek and Latin studies at the Athenee de Saint-Gilles near the family home in Brussels, and the Odyssey became another favourite bedside book. By the time he was 18, Paul's parents realised he would never make a lawyer, so they decided he should study architecture, and he obediently attended the Brussels Academie des Beaux-Arts where he spent most of his time copying the plans and elevations of classical buildings. To his parental dismay, but to his private relief, he failed the mathematics examination, and so could not continue the courses. Yet grounding in the elements of classical architecture was to stand him in good stead in his oneiric depictions of stark naked young ladies in frozen attitudes among Greek colonnades parading in dizzying perspectives towards an improbably rapid vanishing point on absent horizons. Fortunately, in 1919, during a holiday at Zeebrugge and Knokke-le-Zoute, a professional artist saw Paul's watercolours of the North Sea coast and advised his parents to allow their son to train as an artiste-peintre at the Brussels Academie des Beaux-Arts, where he entered the class of 'decorative painting' that stimulated his obsession with monumental classical settings.
He was lucky in having to undergo very undemanding military service which gave him plenty of free time to attend evening classes in Symbolist painting where he first painted from the nude model. In the afternoons he would take the little toy tram to Rouge- Cloitre on the edge of the forest of Soigne where he set up his easel and painted naturalist landscapes. He also composed his first studies of railway stations at the Gare du Luxembourg. He was nearly 30 when he felt confident enough in his talents to set up his own studio, though still in the family home in the rue d'Ecosse. In 1926, he visited the Giorgio de Chirico exhibition in Paris, and the painter left a deep impression upon him. Delvaux's style remained firmly Expressionist until 1933, when he encountered ELT Mesens, leader of the Belgian Surrealist group and close friend of Rene Magritte. A good friend, Charles Spaak, tried to convert Delvaux to Surrealism, but at first his dislike of all groups and all 'isms' made him resist the temptation, which made Magritte use unflattering terms like 'mooncalf' to describe his idiosyncratic independence; he also made puns on Delvaux's name, a particularly cheap form of wit, calling him 'Delvache' - another cattle metaphor, but singularly inappropriate.
Another formative influence on Delvaux was the curious Spitzer Museum in the Brussels fairgrounds, a sort of travelling wax museum containing among other notable freaks and beauties a Sleeping Venus which Delvaux painted and finally, after the death of his mother in 1933, felt able to exhibit in Brussels, where it was so severely criticised that he destroyed it along with many other works from this 'Realist Post-
Impressionist' period. In 1934, the publisher Albert Skira and Mesens, Spaak and others inaugurated the 'Minotaurs' exhibition of paintings by Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Delvaux and Giorgio de Chirico. The last-named again had a profound effect upon Delvaux, whose Palais en ruine ('Ruined Palace') of 1935 showed his influence very clearly, while another Delvaux of the same period, Le Paravent ('The Screen'), showed a preoccupation with the styles of both Magritte and de Chirico. In 1936 Delvaux and Magritte showed together, but this was the end of Delvaux's association with the major Surrealists, for having learnt everything he could from the movement he now insisted on following his own course.
It was the beginning of Delvaux's own unique style. His father died in 1937, after having been incapable of understanding his son's work, and pronouncing himself deeply shocked by Le Cortege de dentelles (1936), an early important work in Delvaux's true style, yet in which all the main figures are females seen from behind, well-covered from top to toe in long lace gowns and proceeding in stately fashion towards a series of diminishing triumphal arches.
But Delvaux did not completely cut his ties with the Surrealists, for he participated, in the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme organised by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard in Paris in 1938, when Eluard dedicated his poem 'Exil' to 'the other Paul'. Delvaux had a one-man show in London in the same year, organised by Mesens and Roland Penrose. Paul was awarded the Academie Picard Prize, and made his first visit to Italy. In 1939 he started his series Les Phases de la Lune incorporating characters from Verne in sumptuous settings inhabited also by creamy nudes and skeletons.
Throughout the war, Delvaux remained disengaged from all conflict, and might have seemed indifferent to the violent trend of events if it were not for La Ville inquiete ('The City of Anxiety') which disturbingly evokes the panic exodus of Belgians from Brussels to Paris on the advance of Nazi troops. He refused to show any of his paintings during the war, but created one of his key works, Le Musee Spitzer, and a new Venus endormie (1944-45), now in the Tate. It depicts a Greco-Roman setting with mannequins and naked ladies and an elegantly posturing skeleton surrounding a Venus in full undress improbably lost in dreams on a pseudo-classic divan bathed in the curious half-light of Delvaux's most nightmarish subjects. In many of this period's works, skeletons take part unselfconsciously in the everyday life of the living or more properly the half-living, standing gracefully beside a naked androgynous boy (Delvaux's memory of himself when young) or reclining sociably, Roman style, on low couches in antiquated salons.
But even more striking are the skeletons deployed in Delvaux's religious paintings. The 1952 Crucifixion in the Royal Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels shows a skeleton Christ on a cross between two skeletal crucified robbers, while the centurion and the other villains are skeletons in sinister suits of grey armour. At the 1954 Venice Biennale, Delvaux's skeletons caused a scandal and horrified Cardinal Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, but the artist stayed aloof from the screams of 'Bestemmia]' ('Blasphemy]'). Delvaux explained his crucifixions and entombments thus: '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 . . . In The Entombment the sacred characters are depicted as skeletons because 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.' These skeleton paintings are among the most powerful in contemporary art, unforgettable.
Delvaux went on painting well into his eighties. In 1988, I caught sight of him, then almost blind, walking bent over a stick, but still with an almost ascetic, angelic look on his face, at the exhibition of his drawings and watercolours at the Galerie Isy Brachot in Paris. He already seemed a legendary figure. As he passed, smiling, his gaze close to the wall on which his pictures hung, I was heard him humming 'La Vie en rose' in perfect tune. His museum run by the Fondation Paul Delvaux in Saint-Idesbald is both a monument and a shrine to one who even in his nineties never forgot the haunting memories of a happy childhood.
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