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Essays

 

 


Paul Delvaux: Sleepwalker or Daydreamer?

Museum Paul Delvaux
St.Idesbald-Koksijde, Belgium
by Valery Oisteanu

Paul Delvaux photographié en compagnie de René Magritte, 1944
Paul Delvaux
photographié en compagnie de René Magritte, 1944

Only two decades ago, Paul Delvaux was painting from memory, having lost most of his sight. He would stand in his studio, looking like a fisherman in a sleeveless shirt, with a cigarette hanging from his lip, painting mermaids and daydreaming in the garden of his studio. Delvaux (1897-1994) was born to be a painter, and he pursued his muse to the very depth of darkness.

The Paul Delvaux Museum can be found in the idyllic setting of the old Het Vlierhof (hotel/restaurant) in the garden in Saint Idelsbad, on Belgium's northern coast. The facility opened in 1982 and has amassed the largest single collection of the artist's paintings. My visit was a very personal experience: I became immersed in Delvaux's world. Parts of the collection alternate masterpieces with some of Delvaux's personal belongings and cherished souvenirs. Then there is Delvaux's rediscovery of the Greek female nude, hypnotic images juxtaposed with contemporary settings 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.

Although Breton invited him into the surrealist fold, published his work and selected him twice for group shows, Delvaux's Belgian counterparts were not so open to his art, and Magritte and Marien objected to his overt oniric, symbolist style and political noncommitment — hence his total absence from the Brussels surrealist group. But the artist remained true to the movement. As he remarked in a 1966 lecture, "Surrealism! What is Surrealism? In my opinion, it is above all a reawakening of the poetic idea in art, the reintroduction of the subject but in a very particular sense, that of the strange and illogical."

One of my favorite paintings here is "Street of Trams" (1938-39), depicting a group of women in a modern urban setting, awaiting a tram in a deserted street. To the left, two women are interrupted in the process of an intimate act, one's hand brushing against the other's buttocks. This composition was analyzed by Paul Scott in "Paul Delvaux: Surrealizing the Nude" (1992), in which he said that the sensual impact of the painting, latent in its theme of waiting prostitutes, is encapsulated in this one small tactile detail.

In the period after his mother's death on December 31, 1932, Delvaux exploded with repressed desire, kept bottled up since his teenage years. He traveled to Italy and France and got an eyeful of de Chirico (whom he first encountered in 1926 or '27) and female nudes. He started painting young naked females engaging in sexual embraces and chaste eroticism — a lover has gone or is awaited, usually in a train station, leaving behind a recumbent victim. During this time he also found inspiration in visits to the Brussels Fair, where the Spitzner Museum, a collection of medical curiosities, maintained a booth in which skeletons and a mechanical Venus were displayed in a window with red velvet curtains.

After 1936, Delvaux essentially painted the same woman, sometime blonde or brunette, with big placid eyes, a smooth body and heavy breasts. His females often drape pedestals, unattainable and intimidatingly beautiful, staring as if hypnotized, reclining incongruously in a train station or wandering through classical buildings. Sometimes they touch each other, mouth to mouth, breast to breast, exposing themselves to the moonlight while scores of suited men wander around the background as if an endlessly postponed rendezvous will never came to fruition (sometimes the men take the form of skeletons, or puzzled scientists drawn from the stories of Jules Verne).

Another recurring theme is death, represented by skeletons or skulls, as in "The Skeleton with a Shell" (1944), painted over a period of four years, during which the artist never left his studio. By the late 1950s, Delvaux was producing a number of night scenes in which trains are observed by a little girl seen from behind.

A documentary film awaits at the end of the museum's collection, where we discover a mysterious, shy man with long white hair, who kept on painting melancholic nudes, like "The Wise Virgins" (1965) almost until the end of his life. In his preface to "The Drawings of Paul Delvaux" (Grove Press 1968), Maurice Nadeau quotes Gerard de Nerval remarking on the artist's "overflowing of dreams into real life…" and adds, "The moment we begin to follow in the footsteps of Paul Delvaux, we discover a planet whose gravitational pull gives our gestures a different weight."

 

Valery Oisteanu is a writer and artist with an international background. Born in Russia in 1943 and educated in Romania, he adopted Dada and Surrealism as philosophies of art and life. Immigrating to New York City in 1972, he has been writing in English for the past 33 years. Oisteanu is the author of 10 books of poetry, a book of short fiction and a book of essays: The Avant-Gods.

For the past 10 years he has worked as a columnist at New York Arts Magazine and as an art critic for Brooklyn Rail and www.artnet.com. He is also a contributing editor at www.artscape.com and a contributing writer for French, Spanish and Romanian art and literary magazines including La Page Blanche, Art.es, Balkon, Dilema, and Romania Literara.

As a performer Valery Oisteanu is well known to downtown New York City audiences, performing every season with the exception of the summer, when he goes on tour abroad. He is always well-received in theaters and clubs specializing in poetry and music where he presents original Zen Dada multi-media shows in his unmistakable style of "Jazzoetry."