CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Paul Delvaux

Exhibition: 12 October 2000 - 31 January 2001

From the museum website

This autumn the Sinebrychoff Art Museum presents a major exhibition of the works of the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). It consists of 56 of the artist’s paintings, drawings and serigraphs, most of which have been loaned by the Belgian Paul Delvaux Foundation, the rest by Belgian and Swiss collectors and the Sara Hildén Museum in Tampere.

Paul Delvaux was one of the most important representatives of 20th century imaginary Surrealism. His paintings combine both modernist and classical features, and he has sometimes been called the painter of poems and dreams.

Paul Delvaux was born in Anheit, Belgium, in 1897. Delvaux’s father wished his son to become, like him, a lawyer, and his mother a musician, but in the end they gave in to his artistic ambitions. Delvaux first studied architecture, and then painting and drawing. Many of his childhood experiences left an indelible impression on his future development, as for instance his Greek and Latin schoolmaster and Homer’s Odyssey. Delvaux’s interest in Greco-Roman culture and architecture is evident in a number of his paintings, such as The Terrace (1979). Music lessons were held in the school museum, allowing Delvaux to study the skeletons in the vitrines. Skeletons, which became one of his most enduring motifs, symbolised not only death but also life, the body stripped of its flesh. Jules Verne’s stories acted as a powerful stimulant to his childhood imaginary journeys, their characters appearing in his paintings as somewhat desiccated male scientists devoid of all emotional or imaginary elements. These Vernesque figures always appear studying fossils, totally unaware of the women strolling seductively around them, though after 1943 male figures disappear almost completely. There is, however, one all-pervading motif in his works – woman. Delvaux’s women are sphinx-like, with neither a past nor a future, musing, silent, beyond reach. These semi-nude figures might be adorned with sumptuous jewellery, feathers or floral hats. In his early works, Delvaux portrayed trains and landscapes, but the great themes of his paintings became the dichotomies of nude and skeleton, man (normally dressed) and woman (normally nude), desire and terror, eroticism and death. Among the frequently recurring details in Delvaux’s works are the mirror, the full or crescent moon, candle, book and flautist.

Early in his career Delvaux showed an interest in 19th century French and Belgian academic painting as represented by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres or Puvis de Chavannes, but later he became influenced by the Surrealists Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte. Delvaux surrealised the academic painting tradition through its problemisation or deconstruction. His In Praise of Melancholy (1948) has its archetype in Ingres’s harem odalisques. The correlation of marble and flesh goes back to 19th century academic painting, where it hinted at possible, phantasmal relationships between people considered improper to otherwise portray. The regular features of the face of the woman in In Praise of Melancholy resemble those of a Hollywood beauty, in particular those of Joan Crawford, a leading film star at that time. In traditional historical paintings, the characters play an active role in relation to the theme, but in Delvaux’s works they have no specific role, they are only ‘active’ in a lyrical sense.

There is a certain theatricalism about Delvaux’s works. Light is an important element; the play of light and strictly delimited shadow create an atmosphere of mystery. There is often a tension between the foreground and background, although generally they are both portrayed with equal accuracy and brightness. The importance of perspective becomes stressed in Delvaux’s works only from the 1930s onwards. He was more interested in line than colour, and some of his works from the 1950s are almost monochromatic. His interest in the curved line is most evident in his portrayals of the human figure.


Paul Delvaux
Minerva Keltanen
Catalogue of an exhibition held in 2000 in Helsinki (Sinebrychoffin taidemuseo = Musée des Beaux-Arts Sinebrychoff = Konstmuseet Sinebrychoff = Sinebrychoff Art Museum)
122 pp., 27 x 22 cm.
Helsinki (Valtion taidemuseo / Sinebrychoffin taidemuseo) 2000
ISBN 951-53-2174-3