Thursday, 15 October 2015

Paul Delvaux – Surrealist in Suburbia

One of the attractions of the Kusttram (Belgian coastal tramway) is the Paul Delvaux Museum at Sint-Idesbald. Appropriately located in the depths of respectable suburbia the museum occupies a former hotel in which almost all the gallery space is to be found below ground level. A generous selection of paintings and drawings is on display together with a full size re-creation of the artist’s studio. Bric-a-brac from the Delvaux personal collection – skulls and skeletons, scale model trams and trains, plaster casts and props – supply context for the artworks in which they frequently appear. Although Delvaux is routinely described as a Surrealist painter, his association with the Belgian Surrealist group centred on Magritte, Mesens and Scutenaire was brief. The frequent boisterous jeux d’esprit that occupied the Belgian Surrealists held little appeal for the introverted and unsociable Delvaux for whom painting was very definitely a solitary pursuit. Constant repetition of a limited range of subject matter (nudes, classical ruins, skeletons, trains and trams) made him an easy target for their scorn.

The Delvaux imagination seems largely formed in adolescence - ancient steam locomotives and vintage electric trams journey without end through the artist’s imagination while in another cranial region wide-eyed young women disrobe to reveal slender limbs and pallid flesh. Elsewhere characters from childhood immersion in the science-fiction of Jules Verne haunt the adult imagination. Delvaux orchestrates these disparate elements into a single compositional fantasy often under cover of darkness. What Delvaux took from Surrealism was the freedom to develop a repertoire of dream-like imagery that integrated a lifetime obsession with trams and trains (a legacy of an introverted childhood) with a taste for unclothed or semi-naked female forms (an expression of erotic anxieties) set against the Palm Court architecture of the Belle Époque or the ruins of Classical civilisation (imprinted on the artist’s consciousness as an architectural student). In finished paintings Delvaux’s universe of dreams was a frozen and lifeless place where the spatial organisation of forms was slightly off-key while the forms themselves were rigid and highly stylised. His drawings and water-colour sketches show a fluency and confident mastery of proportion and spatial relationships that is excluded from the paintings.

Having made his breakthrough he seemed content to continue recycling familiar themes. Genuine menace is rare in his work – gently disturbing or puzzling is more often the case. But there are instances where he achieves something more profoundly unsettling as with “La Gare Forestière” where the bustle of a busy railway station is silently and incomprehensibly transposed into the depths of a woodland glade. The enigmatic figures of two girls observe the scene. Their faces are turned away from us but we can imagine their perplexity and sense of wonder. At his best he finds some genuine poetry and disquiet in the twilight scenes where all seems suspended indefinitely between life and death.

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