Paul Delvaux and Melancholic Nudity of the Mirror Worlds

This is one of those ‘long-planned, but unexpectedly written’, postings. I was actually planning to do something else today (to continue my story about Amish Kapoor’s mirrors, to be precise); alas, one of the ‘life enforcing’ events occurred.

For some of my mirror investigations I am borrowing books about art (history) from a local library. And sometimes comes the day when I can’t prolong them any further and *must*  bring them back – which also means the beginning of somewhat feverish scanning activities, which are seldom followed by comparable writing activities.  Which in why I have accumulated a large amount of the picture sets in my Flickr (for example, on Bonnard, or Balthus, or Breytner – to name just a few) that resulted in no postings so far. I decided to stop such a procrastination practice, and instead ‘shoot straight from the hip’, even with a risk missing (the point).

And so this posting about Paul Delvaux.

A to be famous Belgian artist was born in the very end of the 19th century, in 1897, in the suburbs Huy, a small town near Ardennes. His father was a well-known lawyer and the mother, from a wealthy family, so the boy’s childhood was all very appropriate: an excellent classical education, love and caring from one side, which turns to be overprotection on the other.

This is a picture of Paul in 1907 when he was 10 years old – with his mother, grandmother, younger brother (=the girl in a skirt) and a maid (who, as often happened, spent more time with Paul than his mother).

Compared to the old masters, those who lived even two or three hundreds years ago, and of whom we often known very little (sometimes we even don’t know where they were born, where they learn to pain etc), we know so much about many modern artists, including their own diaries, and photographs from their childhood, and lately even videos showing how they played with their toys. Sometimes it seems to be too much, like breaking a certain enigmatic private cocoon, which is not quite right, if you ask me.

In the case of Paul we don’t have a video yet, but we indeed have pictures of his toys – like this model of the tram he assembled when he was fourteen:

I have no intentions to go into anything psychoanalytical (though the available materials would easily allow for that), but apparently his mother had a huge impact on his early life, deciding what he should learn, how to spend his free time and in general how to live his life. Or rather, she tried, because at some point Paul decided that he will live precisely perpendicular to her planes.

These plans assumed that Paul would follow the path of his father and will become a lawyer too, young Paul has decided that he will be an artist, a painter’ ice and fire. For a while they’ve reached a compromise of some sort, when Paul entered the faculty of architecture at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. But almost from the start of the course he was spending more time on drawing and painting. Soon he pulled out of any architecture studies, and focussed completely on painting, much to the dismay of the parents, especially his mother.

I have a couple of examples of his earlier works (they are very rare, I’ll explain later why). These are both watercolors, and I unfortunately have only black and white versions:

Chapel in Golfe-Juan (1919), a small town near Nice.

Zeebrugge (1920)

At that time he basically produced that type of works, soundly realistic. Here is young Delvaux himself at the easel, in 1920.

No particular love to trains or train stations yet (no matter how hard the authors of the  biographies of Delvaux try to prove the opposite); they show the pictures from his early sketchbook with the railway stations; but they go on a par with everything else.

The same thing goes with nudity; there are traces of any special ‘obsession’ of young Delvaux with depicting nude women. The skill to draw the human body, including from live (nude) models, was considered a prerequisite of any good painter in that time.  Delvaux, like many others, regularly attended drawing workshops and sessions – including, for example, in the studio Constant Montald (below is a group photo from 1922). Interestingly, that René Magritte attended the same workshop, but in different years, and they haven’t met then; they will meet only ten years later.

Here’s an example of one of early Nudes by Delvaux:

Study of Celine (1922)

Delvaux had been diligently and sedulously creating his landscapes and cityscapes in the beginning of 1920-s, and by 1925 had hold his first individual exhibition in Brussels;  to be honest, not noticed by anyone in particular. If it would appear in the Soviet Union, for example, he would most likely join the ranks of socialist realists. But very different art currents flow in Europe at that time, and Delvaux was consecutively falling under the influence of many of them.

A couple of years ago we went to the Musee d’Ixelles in Brussels, where they presented a large exhibition Starting Points, exploring all kinds of influences on Delvaux by other artists of that time. (I wrote a bit about this exhibition in my Russian blog, where you can also see a few examples). By that time I was pretty critical about this concepts of “parallels” found by the curator, I found them too literate; by now, I would perhaps spit a little less (salivation tends to decrease with time), and admit that Delvaux at that time basically “to try everything.”  In his works of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s we can see the influence of great many artists of that time, de Chirico to Modigliani, from De Smet to Permeke. Here are a couple of characteristic paintings of that period:

Composition with naked figures in the wood (1927)

A couple with children in the wood (1928)

But the most dramatic changes in the style, and content of the Delvaux’s art are seen from the beginning of the 1930s, when he got acquainted with the ideas of surrealism, and in particular, with the views and texts by André Breton, the founding father of surrealism. It was the ideas of Breton, about about the utmost importance of the imaginary and dreamy, almost hallucinogenic nature of creativity struck Delvaux to the very heart (or should I say, blow away his mind?)

It should be noted, however, that the whole corpus of ideas of surrealism has reached Delvaux with a large lag; The Surrealist Manifesto was written in 1924, and by the late 1920s it was already quite a powerful movement, at least in the Eastern Europe. But whether the influence of the Northern expressionism was strong, or his personal did quite allow him to catch a new wind, but Delvaux was ‘ignited’ with surrealism almost ten years later, in 1933.

Perhaps worth mentioning that his mother died also in January 1933; this is her posthumous portrait, painted by Delvaux:

There is a feeling that some sort of a dam collapsed at that time, the damn that  restrained the artist before. His break with realism was rather dramatic, he destroyed almost a hundred (!) of his early works (that’s why they are so difficult to find today) and completely immersed in surrealism. The second half of the 1930s looks like an explosive production of such artworks:

we see all the typical features of surrealism here: a mixture of logically unrelated objects in the same imaginary space and time, as if in a dream; high eroticism, dramatic, yet tranquil atmosphere. The logic of reality is dead, viva the logic of surreality, a schizo-logic!

in fact, this is also beginning of the mirror works by Delvaux: here is his first painting depicting a mirror (1936)

This painting is sometimes referred simply as Woman with a mirror, sometimes Woman with a mirror in the cave (and sometimes as Woman in the cave). What (and why) is exactly painted here is not clear (it never is with surrealism), and so everyone is free to practice their free associations and play a personal Professor FreyJung.

The appearance of mirror here is absolutely arbitrary and not justified by any of its functionalities. To start with, no one uses mirrors in the caves – because there is usually no light there. We can of course bravely assume that Delvaux was familiar with one of the very first use of mirrors – as light sources, in otherwise dark houses and temples of the ancient people; it is known, for example, that in ancient Egypt bronze mirrors had been placed in the temples in such a way that the sunlight from time to time was getting inside, reflected in these mirrors; some sort of first fiberoptic cables (they aslo use similar techniques in China). But my gut feeling says me that it’s not the case, and that the mirror here is a purely random artefact. Like everything else too, in fact. This doesn’t make it less beautiful and poetic, though.

I wrote that this is the first painting of the mirror by Delvaux; ‘painting’ here presumes ‘oil painting’, I found a little earlier (1934) watercolor with a mirror. Again, I only have lack and white version by now. As we seem, the mirror doesn’t play any significant role here, it’s just an object of interior:

(By the way, the title is Woman in a veil; perhaps, you will look at the picture again and notice the veil, too.)

The following picture (1937) is the first one (of a few by Delvaux) where the mirror is really used.  If the work would be called ‘Venus with a mirror’, or even ‘Woman with a mirror’, everything would be (almost) logical and appropriate here. But surrealism is not about logic, and so the work is named The Afternoon Mass. Now, what a small hand-held mirror in the hands of naked lady  makes the in the context of the ‘mass’ is again a request for your free associations:

In the same year Delvaux painted his another famous work with a mirror, so called Woman-trees (and sometimes called Aurora):

It is this work that was mocked by Marcel Duchamp in his collage of 1942:

The greatest artist of the 20th century ‘got everything’ about Delvaux already by the beginning of 1940s. But deep insights into the future is always a privilege of a few (and nobody understand them anyway).

The new phase of creativity Delvaux found a warm welcome, by critics and public alike  and brought him new surrealist friends (for example, the above mentioned Magritte, whom he met met in 1933, and whom he became very close with from the mid-1930s onwards). Strictly speaking, Delvaux never formally entered into any association of the surrealists, nor he ‘signed’ any manifestos, but he always, and unmistakably, belonged to them.

Here is his next mirror – and painting also named as such, The Mirror (1939); it can be also easily attributed to Magritte, for instance.

Here are both of them, during hungry and cold war time, in apartment of Delvaux in Brussels (1944).

As often happens with my postings here, I show only the works with mirrors. Of course, Delvaux painted many more works without them; more precisely, he mostly painted his works without the mirror – and he painted quite a lot of them! You can see how productive he was in the second half of the 1930s (look at the wikipaintings gallery that allow to see the works in chronological order.) Amazing to see so many ‘imaginary worlds’, with so many naked women in them.

In 1937 his father died, and as in the case with his mother, Delvaux made a  posthumous portrait of his Papa, too:

An ambivalent event for him, the loss and the grief from one side, and yet a sense of ultimate freedom from the past and control of the future.

Delvaux is now fully assimilated with surrealism and continues to create his cold and geometrical imaginary worlds, with naked women in them. Sometimes they are also skeletons – that one, for instance, even happened with a mirror:

Skeleton (1944)

During the war, many of the paintings begin to take a characteristic dark, nocturnal look, and some of them happen to in the vicinity of railway stations:

The Musee Spitzner (1943) – there is no mirrors in this particular picture, but otherwise it’s a fairly representative example of that period.

By the mid-1940s we see a branded set of Delvaux completely shaped: it includes a  random placement of (fully or partially) naked women with large breast and/or eyes in in some of arbitrary space (it’s often, but not always, a train station), accompanied by    some other people and objects (always having no relations to each other). And all that is lit by unutterable melancholy, another brand feature of the master, together with (pseudo) mythological aura (good classical education does help, sometimes).


And yes, from time to time we also see a mirror or two in this set, but like everything else, without any specific purpose. Here is just one of such works, showing the brand set in full (including mirrors and melancholy):

Night Train (1947)

And here is exactly the same set; but only 25 years later:

The Visit to Ephesus (1973) – the fragment of this particular work was used in the stamp shown in the beginning of the posting.

For nearly half a century, Delvaux has changed in his formula NO. SINGLE. THING.

I am saying here that I don’t like this work; they are nice cool, especially for that time, big respect etc.  They were also sold very well, and who is to throw a stone into a painter able to make his living, and good one, by painting the paintings?  But from a certain point, it all becomes unbelievably boring, self-repetitive déjà vu, like one long never-ending dream (or nightmare?). This is also true for the mirrors, they also become no-mirrors.

Of course, there are always interesting vignettes here and there, like in this case of Sabbath, with its enigmatic and macabre atmosphere; but as in the case of the Mass, the catchy title does more value to the mirror, than the mirror itself.

 Sabbath (1960)

Here we also see a ‘fractalness’, so very typical to many surrealists works, when any piece cut from the picture will work as good as the picture itself (but not better, of course).

I consider Viaduct (1963) – yet another dark night painting at the train station with a mirror in it – a some sort of clever visual hoax by Delvaux. Remember, when you look at a bright object for quite a while? When it disappears, you still see a dark shadow shaped like this object, as a visual negative imprint of your previous experience.

After many years of looking at the Delvaux’ naked women one gets so accustomed to their abundance in his works, that when shown this empty train station begins to imagine female bodies everywhere!

Viaduct (1963)

I could place one, or three, or all the works such as this, in this posting; they wouldn’t add more meaning to this story; they are all different, yet the same:

Abandon (1964)

Tunnel (1978) is one of the latest paintings with the mirrors, and here we see a relatively new theme, the figure of a child, a little girl (but what if it’s his young  brother?) May be because of that women here wear little more than on the average work by Delvaux:

The first sketches show that the initial plans were different, much more into ‘revealing’ than ‘concealing’:

But in the end the painting turned to be almost “childish” and infantilized, and thus  very nostalgic (is there any special word for “nostalgia for childhood”?)

Such are the “mirror of Delvaux”; or Delvaux in one and the very same mirror (here is a photograph of him in 1963):

I dare not to think what would Duchamp made of it, of he would be alive; I also wonder if there is another parody on Delvaux in his latest archives , he died in 1968 and it can be the case that he was aware of the latest works by the Belgian

PS: Once again, it may seem that I don’t like Delvaux or that I am somehow hyper-critical of him. These are both not correct assumptions. If I don’t like the works, I don’t write about them here, I am not beaten by stick here to follow an alphabetical order and cover all and every letter.  I find many of his works very interesting, and his oeuvre in general an important part of the 20th art (not only surrealism). It is more a regret that at some point he stopped and start merely repeating himself (some say it was due to commercial reasons; it well may be, but maybe not, I just do not know.)

More important is a more general question: what does this all have to do with my ‘general theory of mirrors’? And even more specifically, what can I say about all that in the context of my ‘Mirror of Future‘? I should actually ask such a question at the end of each posting… or at least more often; but no promises.

Or, from another angle, what kind of “icon” I would have drawn for this posting (I used to draw them for all my first postings here) ? Ok, here’s my version of the “icon” for Delvaux’ mirrors:

To sa about the same things verbally is a little bit more complicated, but I’ll try. Mirrors of Delvaux didn’t lose their meaning and purpose, rather, they have gained too much meaning, multiplicity of meaning, and therefore arbitrariness and infinity of sense, thus senselessness. They became what is simulacrum these days, am empty sign that does not have – and never did, in fact – and signified. They may – or may not  – be present; they may reflect – or may not; and if they reflect, than not what it is looking at them. They are not governed by any laws of optics – as physics in general,  or general logic. I called them “naked”, but this could be also ‘sleeping’ – or ‘dead’? mirrors.

For example, they might show the future – but in the same way as in a dream, when no one believes in them. And maybe that’s because it happens.

One thought on “Paul Delvaux and Melancholic Nudity of the Mirror Worlds

  1. Pingback: Пол Делво (23 септември 1897 г. – 20 юли 1994 г.) | MEDIA MARKETING

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