Summary of Paul Delvaux
Paul Delvaux's career developed in the shadow of Nazi Germany. It should not come as a surprise then, that his work is known for a distinct sense of anxiety and unease. Surprisingly, that anxiety is not expressed in overtly political subjects. Delvaux was instead interested in exploring humanity and the hidden recesses of the subconscious. He began his artistic training studying architecture in 1916, but soon shifted his focus to painting. While he initially found inspiration in European Expressionism, his mature style was inspired by an altogether different source: The Surrealists. Although he was not an official member of the Surrealists, he shared the group's interest in plumbing the depths of the mind. Like his contemporaries Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, Delvaux used bizarre subject matter rather than abstraction as a means of expressiveness. In so doing, he created uncomfortable scenes that were designed to emotionally shock the viewer.
- The architectural settings of Delvaux's paintings were much more than background; in fact, they were some of his most engaging subjects. This is not surprising given that his earliest artistic training was in architecture. The Classical buildings, city squares, and train stations that staged his mysterious scenes were essential to achieving his distinct moods.
- Nude women are a hallmark of Delvaux's work. They exist somewhere between the realm of statuary and of sex objects, and their very ambiguity is one of the most arresting and confounding features of Delvaux's paintings.
- Delvaux's paintings depict bizarre scenes that bring together elements that don't make sense. His highly naturalistic painting technique compounds the uneasy feeling of his scenes. That such peculiar things are depicted within such believable spaces - without any abstraction of forms and with a bright light that leaves nothing in murky shadow - is disquieting.
Biography of Paul Delvaux
Delvaux was born into the new technological age, one of imagination and invention. He was fascinated by trains and trams, but his overriding passion was for Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), which he loved because of the fantastical worlds it created and its haunting illustrations by Édouard Riou. As the son of a lawyer, Delvaux was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, and so he embarked on a classical education. His imagination was fueled by the myths of Ancient Greece, most notably the story of Odysseus. He recalled a childhood fear of a skeleton that was displayed in his school music room. The skeleton's leering grin haunted his nightmares and served as fodder for his active imagination. All of these childhood influences left a lasting mark on his memory; he once explained that "youthful impressions, fixed once and for all in the mind, influence you all your life."
Important Art by Paul Delvaux
The Awakening of the Forest was inspired by Delvaux's childhood fascination with Jules Verne. Here, he depicts his interpretation of a scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the protagonists stumble upon an untouched, primeval forest. A full silvery moon illuminates a forest where primal nude figures frolic, recline, climb trees, and play instruments. They seem at one with the forest, embracing the trees with leaves in their hair. Clothed figures, the protagonists from the book, intrude on the naked revelers. At the left foreground, Professor Lidenbrock from the novel, wearing evening dress and a red bow tie, examines a stone. The man standing directly behind the professor is a self-portrait of Delvaux as the character Axel from the book. At the far right of the composition, a woman in a red dress walks alone with her back to the viewer. The rich reds of these figures' clothing contrast with the dark green of the forest and the creamy hues of the nudes' skin. The viewer's eye is drawn to the full moon at the center of the painting, which casts an unearthly glow over the scene.
There is no communication between any of the figures. The scientists, forest people, and mysterious clothed woman are all oblivious to one another. All of the elements that make this image bizarre, even disturbing, are hallmarks of Delvaux's work: the mixing of opposing elements, the ethereal light, the distinct perspectival space, the interest in nudes, and, perhaps most importantly, the still eerie mood. This painting seems largely indebted to Édouard Riou, whose illustrations of moonlit underground forests were tremendously influential on Delvaux in his formative years.
In this discomfiting painting, enigmatic nude women in various architectural spaces compete with the eerie lighting and mysterious subject matter for our attention. As was typical of Delvaux's works, there are many incongruous elements vying for our attention here, creating a feeling of anxiety. A tram, which seems to be heading straight toward the viewer, moves through the center of the composition; behind a wall in the distance there are industrial-looking buildings; and flanking the tram tracks are seemingly ordinary buildings. As ordinary as each of these features may be on their own, their convergence gives the painting a dreamlike quality. The harsh light that falls across one side of the painting contributes to the mysterious tone. While it thrusts the foremost figures into the spotlight, the other nudes across the street are cast into murky shadows. Furthermore, the nude women in the buildings are not ordinary domestic figures. The calm anticipation of the nudes, who are posed in doorways, might suggest that these women are prostitutes awaiting their clients. They also allude to classical sculpture, but their fleshy coloring suggests reality - real women in a real house. The association of the women with prostitutes is also founded in the real world, since there were red light districts near the train stations of Brussels. Thus, the citizens of Brussels may already have had an association between nude women and trains. Sigmund Freud, whose work was seminal for the Surrealists, had suggested that trains were a sexual symbol, but Delvaux said that he found such Freudian theories unimportant. For Delvaux the tram was a means of expressing his own personal childhood interests, and the nostalgia inherent to that. Ultimately, the contrast between opposites and the inability of the viewer to reconcile those opposites creates distance and discomfort.
Naked citizens stumble around on the outskirts of a jumbled city of Greco-Roman buildings and chimneystacks. They run, point, embrace, and undress as they cross the bare ground from the city towards a lake in the distance. Under the tiny sliver of a crescent moon the pale skin of the nude figures contrasts with the yellow glow that emanates from the foreground to the stone city gate in the background. Men wearing bowler hats calmly observe the scene, one staring inscrutably at a skull. At the top right corner of the painting, a woman in a red dress stands out from the crowd; she is the only person in the composition who enters the city.
Delvaux began this painting during the Nazi invasion of Belgium and noted that "the psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish." This might account for the intense drama and tension of this scene, whose title translates rather fittingly as "The Concerned City." The prominent man in the bowler hat was based on a real man Delvaux had observed in the street. By including this man in the painting, Delvaux illustrates a certain apprehension. He said that "his very mediocrity tells us something." The tension created by the odd juxtapositions, such as the clothed and naked figures, along with the collective sense of impotence and panic among the figures, powerfully suggests Delvaux's personal struggles living under Nazi occupation, while also suggesting that painting was, for him, a form of escapism.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Paul Delvaux
- Delvaux (1985)By Barbara Emerson
- Paul Delvaux (1949)By Emile Langui
- Delvaux and the Antiquity (2010)Our PickBy Sophie Basch
- Paul Delvaux: Surrealizing the Nude (1992)Our PickBy David Scott
- Words in the Paintings of Paul DelvauxBy David Scott / Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative / November, 2005
- The Delvaux Mystery: Painting the Nouveau Roman, and Art History (2012)Our PickBy Gavin Parkinson / University of Nottingham / 2012
- Paul Delvaux: A Walk with Love and DeathOur PickThyssen Museum / 2015