Paul Delvaux, René Magritte and Salvador Dali are perhaps the most familiar, the most accessible of the Surrealists. Until being expelled, Dali was, in the early days at least, closely linked to André Breton’s group but neither Delvaux or Magritte were card-carrying members of the movement. Even though both Belgians exhibited in the major Surrealist exhibition at the Galérie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1938, they both preferred to eschew Breton’s dogmatic doctrine and work in relative isolation and with total freedom in Brussels rather than Paris.
Although his links with the Surrealists were tenuous, Delvaux was very strongly influenced by one of its masters, Georgio de Chirico, after seeing The Minotaure exhibition in 1934. It was de Chirico’s mysterious arcaded night-time streets that fascinated him and he said that, “with him I realized what was possible, the climate that had to be developed, the climate of silent streets with shadows of people who can’t be seen, I’ve never asked myself if it’s surrealist or not.”
Apart from de Chirico, Paul Delvaux had three abiding influences and interests which were to shape his work – mythology, railways and, of course, naked ladies. His very first paintings from the early 1920s were often of trains and fairly conventional nudes. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that, along with the mythical architectural references, the three elements combined and by the end of the decade the style and content with which we are now familiar was firmly established.
As this exhibition reveals, Delvaux was a slow starter, unsure of what and how he wanted to paint until he was nearly forty. His pre-Surrealist influences are fairly easy to see. He was, of course, an admirer of fellow Belgian painter, James Ensor and even though in Delvaux’s The Sleeping Venus 1 of 1932, the reclining nude is clearly his, there are elements, particularly the clown figure on the left-hand side of the painting, which could have easily been painted by Ensor.
Some of the early Delvaux nudes are very Modigliani and there are even post-impressionist style pictures reminiscent of Renoir. But the pieces of his particular jigsaw were already there, evidenced by the distant passing trains in the Wedding in Antheit of 1932 and the naked lady in Sleeping Venus – and when they all finally slotted together it was clear that Paul Delvaux was a unique and important artist.
There are those who find Delvaux’s pictures of naked or scantily clad ladies wandering the streets, especially those that include a fully-dressed man lurking in the background, rather disturbing, misogynistic even. But these images are the stuff of dreams which none of us can control or therefore cannot be condemned for. This dream element is an important reason why Delvaux could possibly be called more of a true Surrealist than Magritte whose work tended towards the intellectual and arbitrary, which in no way is a criticism.
No doubt a psychiatrist could write a text book on the symbolism in Paul Delvaux’s work and his relationship with his domineering mother and those who today wave the banner of political correctness would also have plenty to sink their teeth into. But they would be missing the point. We all have thoughts and ideas which we find, perhaps, disquieting but we hide them away after our dark nights of dreams, rarely allowing them to see the light of day. Surrealism thrived on dreams and encouraged the revelation of the subconscious and Delvaux was a master of doing just that. He created mysterious, silent worlds peopled by strange passive figures, situations that we can recognise as portrayals of dreams whilst not fully understanding their true implications or symbolism.
The ninety paintings, drawings and prints in this superb exhibition demonstrate not only a vivid imagination but also a mastery of several techniques. Apart from the paintings, Delvaux produced hundreds of beautiful drawings, usually in pen and ink, often finishing them with water-colour. He also had an unusual technique of combining pen and ink drawings on board with oil painting.
The pictures in this show come mainly from the collection of Pierre and Nicole Ghêne-Rahm which is housed at the Museum of Elsene in Brussels. Many of them are early, relatively unknown works and therefore fascinating to discover. As far as I am aware there has never been a Delvaux retrospective in England and this is certainly the first in the Netherlands. Whether you are familiar with the work of Paul Delvaux or are seeing it for the first time, there is much in this outstanding exhibition to delight, surprise, impress and maybe even shock.
So, this is a rare opportunity to see a large body of work by a major Surrealist artist and therefore should not be missed. Michael Hasted 28th October 2017
Paul Delvaux, Master of the Dream continues at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 25th February 2018.
Painting De Courtisanes (The Courtisans), 1944 reproduced courtesy of and © Fondation Paul Delvaux, Sint- Idesbald/Belgium, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2017