I was pre-disposed to like Delvaux, and disappointed that I didn’t. I liked his universe, I felt at home in it, and so felt frustrated, even guilty, that it left me cold.
Yes, instead of continuing down to Paris, we drove up to the North Sea hamlet of Sint-Idesbald. After visiting the Paul Delvaux museum with its sleepwalking nudes in spectral landscapes, its piazzas and ruins populated by ghosts, we set out for a walk along the beach.
A fresh reappraisal of the art of Paul Delvaux, born in Anheit, Belgium, in 1897, is timely for a number of reasons. In the first place, the current revival of interest in the figurative tradition in painting encourages renewed curiosity in the work of a twentieth-century artist who concerned himself for over sixty years with the representation of the nude. Like his younger contemporary, Balthus (born 1908), whom he has always admired, Delvaux has much to tell us about responses to the human figure in our century, especially in its erotic aspects. In particular, Delvaux’s attempt to create a surrealist frisson by foregrounding a female nude in many of his works leads to questions that, in a feminist climate, need to be answered; and foremost is the possibility of a renewal of painterly conventions that for centuries were virtually the exclusive preserve of male artists.
Second, it is interesting to consider recent efforts to rehabilitate nineteenth-century academic painting, after nearly a century’s eclipse by avant-garde movements, in the context of an artist whose work owes as much to nineteenth-century French and Belgian painting in the academic tradition—to J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867), for example, or to Antoine Wiertz (1806-65)—as it does to Surrealism, the movement that was, as we know, to constitute one of the most distinctive developments in modern European art. For while attuning himself to what was new and relevant in contemporary art—the work of Giorgio de Chirico (1888¬1978), especially, was a major revelation—Delvaux was nevertheless to pursue in relative isolation an individualistic approach to painting that did not always seem to be in tune with contemporary developments in art.
Third, it is fascinating to explore the curve of an artist whose paintings, like those of his contemporary and compatriot René Magritte (1898-1967), have much to tell us about how art works; that is, paintings that interrogate the conventions and assumptions on which art is based. A particular quality of Delvaux’s work is that it manages consistently to teach the illuminating and salutary lessons of Magrittean deconstruction while at the same time offering the poetic and suggestive quality of history painting as it has come to be appreciated in the European tradition. The current interest in semiotics is thus rewarded in the case of Delvaux by art that, through its apparent anachronism and strangeness, helps pinpoint the mechanisms that create pictorial signs while also fulfilling the requirements of seduction and desire that viewers (of either gender) typically, if often unconsciously, invest in the image.
The status and significance of history painting as a genre has, of course, become problematic since c. 1900. The myths and literature that were the staple of this genre seldom appear in twentieth-century art without irony, parody or a deconstructive intention. Of all things, modern art has tried to avoid being illustrative or explicit. The concept of straightforward meaning is unacceptable to an age as distrustful of messages as our own, an age in which commercialism and political propaganda have degraded the vocabulary of visual representation. Our awareness of the presence of unconscious meanings, whether in ancient myths or in modern advertising, has made us wary readers of signs, especially since Freud. Accordingly, we have become increasingly interested in the codes that govern their communication and reception.
Delvaux remained alert to this problem and yet, paradoxically, he still aspired to be a history painter of sorts. He resolved the contradictions of his situation by adopting the vocabulary of history painting, a literary or mythical sub-text expressed through motifs associated in particular with nineteenth-century academic art; but instead of observing the conventional ordering of elements, he took up a deliberately illogical syntax. In this way Delvaux produced not the plausible messages the viewer expects from literary or history painting, but surrealist effects.
The way Delvaux problematized history painting by serializing it is probably his most characteristic contribution to twentieth-century art. It is shown, for example, in the way Delvaux’s paintings of nudes of the later 1940s–such as In Praise of Melancholy–simultaneously exploit and deconstruct the conventions of figurative representation in the Western tradition, confirming both how deeply bound up with fantasy they are and the scope they offer for surrealist elaboration.
Delvaux’s continuing preoccupation with female nudity as it was often represented in nineteenth-century academic painting can be fruitfully explored in relation to the meticulously detailed, but incongruous or anachronistic, imagery with which it became juxtaposed. Themes or images that relate to looking (the mirror, the frame) or to showing or to leading the eye (perspective) are of particular significance here. Indeed, perspective was a central concern and key compositional device in Delvaux’s work from the later 1930s on; his use of it demonstrates clearly Delvaux’s commitment both to consolidate and to undermine Western conventions of pictorial representation. Over a half-century Delvaux produced pictures that both entice and demystify, allowing the viewer the fullest sensual and emotional satisfaction the visual image can offer, yet alerting him or her to the artificiality, even absurdity, of the principles that produce such pleasure.
Delvaux’s consistent and obsessive focus on the nude does, of course, pose problems for commentators of either sex attempting a systematic study of his painting. It has, however, on the whole, been male commentators—De Bock, and then Jean Clair and Marcel Paquet—who have confronted the psychoanalytical implications of Delvaux’s work. Perhaps this is as one would expect. Delvaux, like his male predecessors in an essentially phallocentric European tradition, seems through his paintings primarily to be addressing the fantasies and half-repressed desires of the male in relation to the female.
The primal, Oedipal, scene, the castration complex, the neurotic obsession with female nudity, are themes so blatantly and consistently present in Delvaux’s work that they become an irresistible object of attention to another phallocentric Western system, albeit more recently established, that of Freudian analysis. Although Delvaux himself was never analysed, and has shown only a distant interest in Freud, his more perceptive critics have been quick to explore the Freudian implications of his art. These implications have been pursued in detail by Jean Clair in the context of some crucial paintings by Delvaux of the early 1940s. They have also been investigated by Marcel Paquet, who, however, relates the unconscious developments in Delvaux’s work not only to the question of Desire but also to the other and more general aims, also not always fully acknowledged, of figurative painting in the European tradition.
My own study, while from time to time making clear its debt to Clair, to Paquet and, of course, to Freud, does not attempt a systematic psychoanalytic approach to Delvaux. Its purpose, rather, is to show how the conventions of post-Renaissance painting are mobilized and motivated by Delvaux in such a way as to re-enact, as it were, metaphorically, the unconscious or semi-conscious desires or traumas of the male psyche, particularly as Freud has analysed them, in relation to the female Other. Such an approach has the advantage of focusing attention as far as possible on the evidence of the paintings themselves, but does not claim to be complete. A feminist reading of Delvaux is still awaited; so, too, is a study of the lesbian activity that is presented in many of Delvaux’s drawings.
A feminist reading would no doubt include a broader perspective on Surrealist art by women, in particular Leonora Carrington (born 1917), Leonor Fini (born 1908) and Meret Oppenheim (born 1913). Such a perspective has not been pursued in this study for reasons of space but also of focus, for it would seem to offer more areas of contrast than of analogy. Leonor Fini’s narcissism and sexuality as expressed through her work seems altogether more flagrant and provocative, even sensationalist, than that so diffidently manifested by Delvaux. In this respect, Fini has far more in common with Dali, not least in her overriding desire to mythologize the self. The work of Carrington and Oppenheim seems to offer potentially more interesting points of comparison with that of Delvaux, but one has the sense with these two figures — as indeed one does with most Surrealist women painters — that there is a much closer and more vital link between their work as artists, even as it centres on themselves as women, and the men with whom they were in one way or another sexually, emotionally or artistically involved, than was ever the case with Delvaux.
A feminist reading would no doubt include a broader perspective on Surrealist art by women, in particular Leonora Carrington (born 1917), Leonor Fini (born 1908) and Meret Oppenheim (born 1913). Such a perspective has not been pursued in this study for reasons of space but also of focus, for it would seem to offer more areas of contrast than of analogy. Leonor Fini’s narcissism and sexuality as expressed through her work seems altogether more flagrant and provocative, even sensationalist, than that so diffidently manifested by Delvaux. In this respect, Fini has far more in common with Dali, not least in her overriding desire to mythologize the self. The work of Carrington and Oppenheim seems to offer potentially more interesting points of comparison with that of Delvaux, but one has the sense with these two figures—as indeed one does with most Surrealist women painters—that there is a much closer and more vital link between their work as artists, even as it centres on themselves as women, and the men with whom they were in one way or another sexually, emotionally or artistically involved, than was ever the case with Delvaux.
Leonor Fini, The Shepherdess of the Sphinxes, 1941
Leonora Carrington, The Pomps of the Subsoil, 1947
Meret Oppenheim, Das Leiden der Genoveva, 1938
Perhaps it is the case that women Surrealists were ultimately both more idealistic and more realistic, intent on incorporating their work as artists into the very texture of their emotional, sexual and social lives. Delvaux, on the other hand, approached the representation of the nude woman as an impossible ideal, an ideal that would be futile for him to attempt to come to terms with in real life. Thus Danielle Caneel, the slender brunette who was to model for his paintings for almost twenty years, seems only to have become profoundly absorbing to Delvaux when transformed into the blond Venus of his paintings. It is, then, nudity not nakedness, surrealization rather than confrontation in reality, that has provoked and informed Delvaux’s fullest response to Woman, one to which only his art, it seems, is able to give full expression.