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MADRID – This February, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is presenting an exhibition on the Belgian painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), an artist represented in both the Museum’s Permanent Collection and the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Organised in collaboration with the Musée d’Ixelles and curated by Laura Neve, that institution’s academic advisor, Paul Delvaux: A Walk with Love and Death will present a thematic survey featuring more than 50 works loaned from public and private collections in Belgium, in particular that of Nicole and Pierre Ghêne, which constitutes the nucleus of this project and is represented by a loan of forty-two works. Fascinated since 1962 by the work of Delvaux, Pierre Ghêne began his collection in the early 1970s. Since that time it has continued to grow and now numbers hundreds of them, most of which are in the Musée d’Ixelles.

Following his experiments with realism, Fauvism and Expressionism, Delvaux discovered the work of Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico. Surrealism was a crucial revelation for the artist, although he never considered himself a Surrealist painter in a strict sense. Delvaux was more interested in Surrealism’s poetic, mysterious facet than its iconoclastic battles, leading him from the 1930s to create his own, unique universe, free of the rules of universal logic and located between classicism and the modern world and between dream and reality. Notable for its stylistic unity, Delvaux’s output is characterised by a strange, enigmatic atmosphere. The principal motifs, ranging from women to trains and including skeletons and buildings, are part of that universe: isolated, self-absorbed, almost somnambulist beings, often located in nocturnal settings and apparently unrelated to each other, the only link between them being the artist’s own experiences.

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The exhibition focuses on the five principal themes in Delvaux’s iconography, all revolving around love and death: Reclining Venus, a recurrent motif in his work which refers to his unconditional love for women; The Double (Couples and Mirrors), which focuses on seduction and the relationship with the alter ego; Architectures, which focuses on the omnipresent buildings in his oeuvre, particularly classical ones but also examples from WatermaelBoitsfort (Brussels, Belgium) where he lived; Train Stations; which are essential to the construction of his pictorial personality; and finally, The Skeleton of Life, which analyses Delvaux’s fascination with that motif, which he used as substitutes for live figures engaged in everyday activities.

Born into a family of lawyers, Delvaux received his father’s permission to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels where, after briefly studying architecture, he opted for decorative painting and graduated in 1924. His early works reveal the influence of the Flemish Expressionists such as Constant Permeke and Gustave de Smet, who represented the Belgian avant-garde of the time. At this early date Delvaux began to reveal an interest in depicting the human form, particularly women, which would remain a constant artistic concern throughout his career.

Born into a family of lawyers, Delvaux received his father’s permission to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels where, after briefly studying architecture, he opted for decorative painting and graduated in 1924. His early works reveal the influence of the Flemish Expressionists such as Constant Permeke and Gustave de Smet, who represented the Belgian avant-garde of the time. At this early date Delvaux began to reveal an interest in depicting the human form, particularly women, which would remain a constant artistic concern throughout his career.

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Reclining Venus

Delvaux’s interest in the motif of the sleeping Venus began in 1932 when he visited the Spitzner Museum, one of the principal attractions at the Foire du Midi in Brussels, which displayed wax figures showing surgical innovations, illnesses and physical deformations, together with specimens preserved in formaldehyde. Delvaux was above all struck by an exhibit entitled The Sleeping Venus and that same year painted his first canvas on this subject, subsequently reinterpreting it on numerous occasions and with striking variations.

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The version of 1932 included in the present exhibition is particularly original in its execution. At this period Delvaux was close to Expressionism and his work reveals the influence of James Ensor, particularly in the use of the grotesque and in the strange atmosphere that pervades the work. The artist had not yet created his Surrealist universe but already made use of some of its key elements such as the woman, the skeleton, the unexpected, angst, etc.

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Two years later Delvaux admired De Chirico’s work in the exhibition Minotaure held in Brussels in 1934, and his painting The Dream (1935) already reveals new aesthetic ideas in which a dreamlike reality prevails over an objective one. The principal figure in this canvas does not directly refer to Venus but rather to the woman in general, as representative of the female sex. Probably due to the fact that Delvaux’s relations with the opposite sex were never easy (he had a domineering mother, a platonic affair and an unsuccessful marriage), the theme of the woman was one of his obsessions and is expressed in his oeuvre in the form of mysterious and beautiful but, to the artist, unobtainable young women.

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The Double (Couples and Mirrors)

Another recurring concept in Delvaux’s oeuvre is that of seduction. From the early 1930s onwards he painted both heterosexual and lesbian couples, fascinated by the latter relationship given that it pertained to the realm of female intimacy and representing it in a much simpler and more intimate and spontaneous way. His visit to a brothel around 1930 may lie at the origins of this theme of “female friends”, which began to reappear in his work. Over the following months Delvaux depicted numerous embracing women in sketches and studies characterised by an enormous freedom of expression. Livelier and more expressive than his canvases, these drawings allowed him to give free range to his imagination and to explore various taboos.

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Some experts consider that Delvaux made use of lesbianism to convey his disappointment with heterosexual relations, which he tended to stigmatise in his works, condemning his figures of opposite sexes to a lack of contact and dialogue. In Pygmalion (1939), represented in the exhibition by a preliminary study, the female character prefers a stone sculpture to a man, inverting the original myth in which the sculptor fell in love with the statue he had carved. In the painting the two members of the couple have their alter egos in the background. This represents the theme of the double, which is notably present in Delvaux’s work and is associated with his use of mirrors as another important element in his paintings. All entitled “Woman at the Mirror”, examples of this theme such as the one of 1936 in the Museum’s Permanent Collection, endow the mirror with an active role and favour the specular image rather than the tangible one.

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A separate area within this section is devoted to The Conflagration (1935). It has recently been discovered that this is only the right-hand half of a larger canvas that was cut in two by Delvaux before he exhibited it at the annual Salon in Antwerp that same year. At a later date the collector Pierre Ghêne acquired the rediscovered lost half, which he subsequently donated to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. The two parts could be seen together for the first time last year at the Musée d’Ixelles and will also be present in this exhibition.

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Architectures (Acropolis)

Architecture occupied a prominent position in Delvaux’s work from the mid-1930s onwards. Fascinated by classical mythology as a child, he drew battles inspired by the ones he had read about in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Delvaux’s first mythological canvas, The Return of Ulysses, dates from 1924 to 1925 and heralds the importance that the classical world would have in his work, even though the subject is treated in a relatively literal manner. The artist was not convinced by the results and abandoned classical subjects in favour of Expressionism, returning to them, however, in 1934.

De Chirico’s influence is evident in this return to classical culture, which was fundamental to Delvaux’s iconography and is expressed not just through architecture but also through mythology and the clothing of his female figures. For the artist, antiquity represented a means of escape from everyday reality and a comforting way of liberating his imagination.

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Delvaux’s works acquired a theatrical, even cinematic character due to the importance of the settings, the structuring of the compositions into successive planes and the hieratic poses of the figures. In some cases classical antiquity is suggested by architectural details that become part of the setting. In other works Delvaux painted entire classical panoramas; whole cities in which he nonetheless included anachronistic elements and combined different styles, giving the scenes an absurdist character. Palace in Ruins (1935) was his first authentically Surrealist work and paved the way for the development of his subsequent style, characterised by a mood of poetic mystery in which silence prevails.

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The buildings that appear in Delvaux’s canvases are precisely painted. The artist researched and documented each element through models and photographs with the aim of faithfully reproducing reality. His depictions of classical architecture became increasingly accurate, particularly after his visits to Italy in 1937 and 1939 and Greece in 1956. The motif of the ancient city increasingly replaces the depiction of ruins, with references to real buildings and partly surviving monuments. During this period Delvaux’s chromatic range became lighter and he placed new emphasis on colour.

Train Stations

From a very early age Delvaux was interested in the world of railways, which for him represented a fascinating symbol of incipient modernity. By the 1920s the Luxembourg Station in Brussels was already one of his favourite sources of inspiration and he would paint there outdoors. Delvaux produced a dozen large-format canvases in which he depicted the station’s bustling life, its wintry atmosphere and the conditions of the railway workers, in a continuation of the social realism initiated in Belgium by Constantin Meunier.

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Delvaux subsequently abandoned the world of trains but returned to it, better prepared academically, in the 1940s and from then on it would be indissolubly linked to his pictorial identity, to the point where he was known as the “painter of stations”. Without referring to their actual destinations, Delvaux located trains and trams in contemporary settings or in classical cities in scenes peopled by women on the platforms or in the waiting rooms prior to a rendez-vous or to the start of their journeys.

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With regard to the artist’s childhood memories, in 1950 he embarked on a series of nocturnal scenes in which young girls wait in empty stations, reflecting his fears provoked by the adult world. The erotic tension of the 1940s now gives way to tranquillity and calm, as in The Viaduct (1963), in which everything is frozen, seemingly for an event that never actually happens.

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The Skeleton of Life

Delvaux’s fascination with skeletons dates back to his years at school when he paid close attention to the skeleton in the biology classroom, which both frightened and fascinated him. From 1932 onwards the skeleton became an element in his visual vocabulary and one of particular expressivity. On occasions, skeletons substitute the principal figure and thus reinterpret the narrative in the manner of an alter ego. When not the principal figure they appear in the background, blending in with the setting and playing a secondary but no less important role in which they behave in the manner of humans.

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In the 1950s Delvaux executed a series on “The Passion of Christ” (the Crucifixion, Descent from the Cross and Burial), also featuring skeletons, which he exhibited in 1954 at the Venice Biennial, the theme of which that year was The Fantastical in Art. They provoked a scandal (unintentional on the artist’s part) and were condemned as heretical by Cardinal Roncalli, the future Pope John Paul XXIII.

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