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PRINT February 1985

PAUL DELVAUX’S IMAGINATION

LOOK AT THE ART AROUND. Do you believe it, or better yet do you believe in it? Does it have the power to move or delight? Is it marvelous, does it mystify? Too much of what is being made today is pseudoart—things that at first glance may have the look of art. What differentiates pseudoart from art is imagination.

It takes imagination to transform the familiar into the fantastic, to reveal the truth in the mundane, to pave a visual pathway to the unknown. A vision without imagination is one-dimensional, far too limited in scope and limiting in outlook to make more than an initial impact which dissipates and finally dissolves after repeated viewings. A vision with imagination digs and delves to bring out the meaning of form, to get at the essence of content. A vision with imagination can seize a theme which may have been done a hundred times before, personalize it, and‚—this is most important—make it matter in a startling, fresh way. That’s originality.

The complaint heard frequently today about so many artists being derivative is due to the lack of imagination, to the inability of artists to transcend sources. Originality in the sense of inventing the wheel is a conundrum because of arts long and rich history. A cult of the new has arisen in the last forty years which offers an extremely limiting view of the quality of originality. It values above all else artists who are first. Being first is certainly one sign of originality but the cult around it has created a curious situation in which wonderful artists not considered “firsts” are neglected, although they may possess great imagination. Such is the case with the 87-year-old Belgian artist Paul Delvaux, whose work for too long has been perceived in terms of that of René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, two artists who did influence him but never dominated him. Previous literature on Delvaux made too much of the possible influences on him, particularly that of Magritte. It’s high time to state for the record that the favorite art historical game of “who did what first” is a trivial pursuit in the case of Delvaux and Magritte. Of greater value is to consider the fundamental differences between them, which in no way take away anything from each artist’s originality. Compared to Magritte, Delvaux shows himself to be the more sensual and painterly painter. He is also much less literary than Magritte was, in the sense of using painting as a language to illustrate certain conceptual ideas about, say, the interrelationship of art, reality, and appearance. Working since the early 1930s from a highly personal and hardly doctrinaire brand of Surrealism, Delvaux has demonstrated the power of a painter’s imagination in a consistent body of figurative work notable for its provocative, inspired, unrepressed fantasy.

Born in 1897 in Antheit, a small village in the province of Liège, Delvaux grew up in Brussels in comfortable surroundings. The son of a prominent attorney, he was sent to the Athénée de Saint-Gilles in Brussels, one of Belgium’s most prestigious academies, where he received thorough instruction in the humanities. Certain life-long fascinations for antiquity and the works of Jules Verne, the popular late-19th-century French science fiction writer, can be traced back to these years. The Saint-Gilles education is also the remembered source of one of the unusual recurrent themes in his art—skeletons. In an interview with Delvaux which I conducted at his Brussels home in June 1984, he said that his interest in skeletons goes back to the strong impression made on him by the display of a monkey skeleton used for anatomy lessons at school. Painting has allowed him, he added, to transform childhood fears into curiosity.

In 1916, Delvaux entered the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels to study architecture, but only stayed a year. He decided then to make painting his career, and from 1918 to the early 1920s he attended various classes at l’Académie de Bruxelles. Among his teachers were Constant Montald and Jean Delville, two painters associated with the turn-of-the-century Belgian Symbolist movement which, in the 1920s, would have looked a bit old-fashioned to their young art students. Delvaux began by painting landscapes. Encouraged by the Belgian landscape painter Alfred Bastien he worked at various sites in and around Brussels. Early paintings of the woody landscape at Rouge-Cloître and of different railroad stations, in particular the Gare du Luxembourg, are in a naturalistic, plein-air, PostImpressionist vein. In Vue de Ia gare du Quartier Léopold, 1922, trains come and go, to and from the station in a sweeping panorama which includes a distant view of the city in the background. A melancholic mood created by the dusky atmosphere of the scene hints at how the artist would later really use the subject of trains and railway stations as metaphors for memory and loss. His idea of painting was about to change. By the mid ’20s these reproductions of what he saw no longer satisfied him. Inspired by the noble and idealized vision of the human figure in Greco-Roman art, Delvaux evoked the lyricism of antiquity in a group of paintings from 1928 and 1929. In Rose et blanc, 1929, he captures the grace and reserved beauty of classicism in the flawless surfaces and simplified rhythmical outlines of the large female nudes dominating the foreground of this arcadian scene. These statuesque, pensive figures also look forward to the dreamy women populating Delvaux’s painting from the mid 1930s on, which have become his famous trademark.

But in about 1930, perhaps in response to the spiritual anxiety and the world-changing economic crisis, Delvaux turned briefly to Expressionism as a way of dealing more directly with the contradictions he saw and the hypocrisies he sensed in contemporary life. His interest in the work of Gustave de Smet and Constant Permeke, two major Belgian Expressionist painters, is reflected in the changed mood of his paintings. Faces become broader, even masklike; bodies become heavier, even distorted in parts; the content turns more overtly psychological.

Contemporary figures appear to intrude in allegorical contexts, while allegorical allusions are made in apparently contemporary contexts. For example, in Fête du Village, 1930, a man in a modern suit peers out from a crowd of nude women, whose outlined torsos invite interpretations as archetypal symbols of female sexuality. Or Vénus endormie, 1932, in which a man and woman in modern dress stare out at us and down at a nude woman lying recumbent on a divan as if she’s on exhibit: another couple next to them divide their attention between her and a standing skeleton looking toward the left edge of the painting. This complex allusion to the death in life, and the life in death, is already provoking his audience to ask the questions about beauty, about death, about modern fears and fantasies that will arise frequently in his mature style. Many years later, in a tribute to James Ensor published in 1963, Delvaux said of his older colleague that “he discovered a new aspect and a new reason to paint: to paint impossible things, but those that give us poignant sensation.” The same can be said about Delvaux. In the early 1930s, he was close to this place where as an artist he would later want to be. By 1935, however, he had definitively found the way to paint “impossible things.” What intervened was his decision to work within the sensibility of Surrealism.

“Minotaure,” a show of paintings by de Chirico, Magritte, and Salvador Dali held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1934, had made Surrealism a hot topic of discussion in progressive Belgian art circles. The show offered Delvaux the opportunity to see again the work of one of his favorite artists, de Chirico, whose paintings he had first seen on a visit to Paris in 1926. Because he himself was headed in a sympathetic direction, he was open and receptive in 1934 to the kind of provocative imagery found in de Chirico’s paintings. De Chirico and Surrealism helped Delvaux to liberate his own imagination, to pursue his fascination for classicism, to free the modern metaphors deep within himself and let them soar. The vision that emerges in Delvaux’s painting beginning around this time hit directly at the theatrical heart of figural Surrealism. His distinctively dramatic approach won him the admiration of Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, and a place in the Surrealist pantheon. Breton and Eluard included Delvaux’s paintings in the major survey, the “Exposition lnternationale du Surréalisme,” which they organized in Paris in 1938. In the same year, a show of Delvaux’s paintings in London met with great success among British Surrealists. Although Delvaux remained in Brussels during World War II, his work was seen in various Surrealist exhibits held in New York and Mexico, due largely to the efforts of Breton who was then living in exile in America. In New York in 1942, Marcel Duchamp made a collage after a detail of a Delvaux painting called In the Manner of Delvaux.

Delvaux never rejected the poetic element he had found in Surrealism, and continued to develop the approach he had employed in the war years. He is still doing so. Changing artistic tastes and trends have had no appreciable effect on him. But don’t get the idea that Delvaux is unaware of the world around him. Turning the force of his imagination on modern life, he reveals the exceptional element hidden in everyday appearances to get at what he himself has called “the mystery of things,” as in Place publique, 1935. In this painting, Delvaux transforms a cobblestone square surrounded by buildings with classical facades and shutters, of the kind found all over Brussels, from a familiar into a fantastic sight. Working in a precise, veristic mode, he depicts a typical square which he leaves empty except for a single figure standing near the center in the extreme foreground. A naked, barefoot woman, her head slightly inclined to the left, her left hand resting under her right breast, looks seductively out at the viewer. Delvaux has adjusted the scale, perspective, and lighting to heighten the disjuctiveness of the composition and bring out the shock implicit in the voyeuristic position in which he places you, the viewer. You become someone who comes upon the very unexpected—a naked woman in a city square. You’ll never know what she’s doing or waiting for, but you might suspect it has something to do with slapping the face of bourgeois repression represented by the kind of lives being led in the orderly houses around the square.

It is also possible to let all the questions remain unanswered, to reflect and even revel in the inexplicable aspects of the painting, and further appreciate it as a lyric celebration of fantasy.

Pygmalion, 1939, an example of a painting featuring a theme inspired by classical myth, is just one among scores of paintings that reveal Delvaux to be no conventional storyteller. Classicism, for Delvaux’s generation, is still a living legacy. The Greek and Latin classics formed the basis of their education. Much of the architecture they were surrounded by as they grew up, from public buildings to mausoleums, was classically inspired. As adults, they witnessed the political uses of classicism made by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. But it is important to keep in mind that classicism, for Delvaux, was also a reservoir of inspiration with deep and unending potential. His frequent references to classicism in the 1930s and 1940s and his interest in using the tensions between the many meanings of classicism for expressive ends should be seen in this context. In Pygmalion the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion, whose wish that a beautiful ivory statue of a woman he had carved would come to life was granted by Venus, is only the starting point for Delvaux’s subject. In Delvaux’s painting, the statue, a young nude male cut off at the arms and legs and displayed on a wooden base, is the object of affection of a nude blond woman who stands next to it with her arms wrapped intimately about its shoulders. This is happening outdoors in the middle of a square that looks part private and part public, part modern and part classic. Behind them is a shed with walls made of wooden planks and a roof of corrugated metal. The open door of the shed reveals part of a table and an overhanging light. The shed extends from another structure that opens onto an interior in which a draped figure/sculpture, small and barely visible, is standing. Broken stones are strewn over the cracked pavement of the patio where the woman and statue are located. To the right strolls a nude woman wearing a bunch of leaves as a hat and a flowering stem that grows from between her legs and partially covers the front of her body. To her right, a man in a black derby, black overcoat, black pants, and black shoes carries a black cane and walks with his back to us. Next to him is the corner of a classical-style building and ahead of him lies a stretch of gridded pavement that leads to sand dunes and the sea in the far distance. Delvaux brings together these disparate figures, integrating them in a composition not only thoroughly persuasive but strangely moving. Again the shadows suggest connections between different parts of the scene. For example, the shadow of the leaf woman projects toward the man in black in the shape of a beggar, not quite touching him.

The subject of Pygmalion is transformation. Delvaux has taken the myth, which is already about transformation, and transformed it by his dramatic presentation into a new scene fraught with the kind of multidimensional narrative ambiguities that have special appeal to the 20th-century psyche. One can read many interpretations into this rich work, ranging from its being about the Pygmalion dynamic of artist and model to its being about the repressed desires of men and women. Some people might see the scene as a fantasy of the man in the bowler hat, while others will prefer simply to enjoy its elegiac sensuality. The point is that things aren’t what they seem. That is an important part of Delvaux’s “mystery of things.” Is the nude but flora-bedecked woman a symbol of nature, which the world of the bowler-hatted man, the urban-industrial society of the 20th century, seeks to radically transform? And why cut off the limbs of the statue? To bring to mind the imperfections of surviving examples of antique statuary or to play on our fears of change and subsequent amputation? Delvaux’s convincing way of putting together a composition, his loving, successful attention to painted form, to light and shadow, focuses attention on each part of the picture, and promotes the kind of active viewing that encourages us finally to create our own scenarios.

In paintings executed during World War II, which Delvaux spent in Nazi-occupied Brussels, he developed the evocative aspects of his pictures to new dramatic heights. In a series of paintings set in a classical city, he expressed the anxieties he and his countrymen felt, giving voice to them in sophisticated allegorical compositions.

In La Ville inquiète, 1941, the eye is immediately drawn to the largest figure, a nude man seated in a trancelike pose in the left foreground. A human skull lies near his feet; surrounding him is a fallow landscape with weeds and rocks, which lead to steps to the temples, palaces, gates, and other monuments of the classical city, located near the edge of a body of water, in the background. Anguished figures of men and women—most naked, though some are partially clothed—fill the landscape and city. The few figures in modern dress focus the distress that pervades this painting. The most prominent of them is an old man in a bowler hat dressed in an old-fashioned black suit, wearing a white shirt with a high stiff collar and wire-rimmed glasses. Far up the steps is another hollow-eyed man in similar black dress who is holding his hat out in a begging gesture. A symbol of reason, the man wearing the bowler appears in other paintings of the period (including a 1941 version of Les Phases de Ia tune), often together with a taller thin man with a long coat inspired by the scientists from the stories of Jules Verne. In La Ville inquiète he walks toward the viewer as if in a daze, with hands held in front of his body and fingers bent into claws. His gesture mirrors the dreamlike horror and helplessness felt during the war. The specter of death hovering over this scene is represented in the striding figures of the skeletons that Delvaux has almost hidden among these frenzied crowds of people. The viewer’s discovery of them is as startling as the realization that the only ray of hope is offered by the group of beautiful, bare-breasted young women in the right foreground. Each one is dressed in a different-colored skirt held up by a bow, and each looks in a different direction toward the scene. The vital white and golden light radiating from their skin invites interpretation of them as goddesses who have come to earth, as did the classical deities, to witness for themselves the tragic trials and tribulations of mortals. Delvaux’s ability to flesh out the figure with color, to bring out the veneer of human vulnerability through shading and highlighting, is strongly in evidence. Color is also used to pull together this complex, multi planar composition by the repetition of yellow and red, which when contrasted with the surrounding dominant neutral areas creates the structural rhythms integrating the diverse imagery.

Throughout La Ville inquiète the figures are scaled and placed to activate and underscore their significance as personifications of feeling. Le Canapé vert (le temple) (The green couch [The temple], 1944), another painting from the war period, also demonstrates the artist’s distinctive approach to perspective and space. In this painting the foreground contains two figures. Seated on the edge of a chair on a balcony in the extreme right corner of the painting is a profile figure of a young curvaceous woman with long auburn hair wearing a long-sleeved, yellow, velvety gown. She looks left toward a colonnade from which a nude blond woman is walking down the stairs. Behind them in the middle ground of the painting is a naked young man lounging on a green 19th-century-style couch. Slightly to the right and behind him is another nude woman with long brown hair kneeling against a rock. Directly behind the couch is a Greek temple, and in the background are other classical buildings, classical sculpture, and people walking around, and finally mountains and sky. The relationships of figure to architecture, figure to sculpture, and architecture to landscape are designed to created the illusion of a measured, orderly world. Again, the luminous tone of the flesh colors in contrast to the strong primaries brings out the specificity of the details, heightening the vividness of the imagery. Once you enter the deep, boxlike space, you discover that far from being an emblem of rationality it is a layered repository of mystery.

Le Canapé vert is a clear example of how Delvaux uses perspective to encourage the viewer to identify with each of the major figures in the painting in turn, and to imagine the events being depicted from each ones viewpoint. As the largest and closest figure to the viewer, the seated woman takes on an affective, palpable quality which encourages a reading of every nuance of her appearance for meaning. Ones response to her makes the other figures come to emotive life. She-and by extension you-seem to be watching the other figures and the rest of the scene from the balcony, like spectators at a play. Is the title of this play found on the poster barely visible on the side wall in back of her? What is happening? Again only imagination, on your part as well, is the key to the special drama in Delvaux’s art.

The experience of looking at the paintings of Delvaux made after World War II becomes more and more like watching the stage when the lights have just come up in the theater or during the opening shots of a movie. He makes you want to know what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen. His means are strictly plastic, dependent on the skills of painting and drawing. His ability to render true-to-life detail, to model form and mood with color, produces the strong graphic quality of the paintings, which in reproductions of the work is unfortunately exaggerated to the point of de-emphasizing the no-less-important painterly qualities present in the subtle modulation of colors. Still, the graphic aspects startle the modern photographically informed eye into believing in the imagery. The specificity of painted, photographic detail, for example in the paintings featuring railroad stations, produces his complex illusion of “reality” But things are presented not as they are in the real world but as they are in Delvaux’s world of imagination. An artist who works in cycles, Delvaux has returned frequently during the last forty years to a few favorite motifs: classicism, women, skeletons, and railway stations. The consistency of his subject matter reveals an important characteristic of imagination. Imagination requires, searches for, and indeed thrives on stimulation—in Delvaux’s case, those things that allow him to talk movingly about the elemental mystery of life, of death, of beauty.

The women who appear nude, bare-breasted, dressed in turn-of-the-century garments, singly, in pairs, in group processions, are symbols of life, the muses of creativity. Always young, tall, and curvaceous, they represent an ideal of beauty at once sensual but also restrained and elegant. They are accessible and address the viewer not in mundane physical terms. They transcend them. But they move, behave, and emote in the special contained and controlled ways that characters in a play or on screen do. They are the main actors in a specific moment in imaginary time, in imaginary space. The paintings emanate the same kind of authenticity and high spiritual plane of inspired fantasy encountered in paintings by the 15th-century artists Sassetta and the Master of the Barberini Panels, that is, work made before the depictions of religious iconography became formularized, routine, and rule-ridden. The beauty of the execution, the refinement and complexity of thought and allegory, the tension-filled but engaging harmony between idea and image, form and content, are the common qualities that make you believe and believe in his painting as you do in these examples of Italian Renaissance painting. While Delvaux continues this grand figurative tradition he has also reinvented it for the modern sensibility. Through his methods of dynamic displacement and splendid isolation of figure and setting, Delvaux creates in each painting an overall poetic context fraught with countless narrative fragments but no clear story line.

Delvaux has been painting skeletons since the early 1930s. His idea of the skeleton as the foundation of human life motivates his expressive depictions of them. While skeletons by tradition are the quintessential symbols of death, Delvaux dares the viewer to overcome any personal fear of them and see them in connection to life. In L’Hiver, 1952, a skeleton shown sleeping on a bed inside a hothouse filled with blooming plants seems shockingly human in its comfortable pose. In Mise au tombeau (Entombment, 1957), the skeletons playing the roles of Christ and his mourners take on a strangely affective spiritual dimension. At the same time, the placement of this scene in a wintry modern setting almost trivializes it in a humorous way. Delvaux invites you to smile perhaps a bit nervously at death, but he encourages you always to delight in life. What we all can learn about imagination from Paul Delvaux is, finally, this: If you have it, flaunt it. And, conversely, if you don’t have imagination, all an artist can do is fake it.

Ronny Cohen writes frequently for Artforum. The author would like to thank Anne and Mark Somerhausen, Charles Van Deun. and Mme. Anne-Marie Delvaux for their generous help in the research for this article.