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Art & artists

Delvaux, the detached Surrealist

— August 2013

Associated media

Paul Delvaux, L'éloge de la mélancolie, Oil on panel, 153x255cm, Painted in 1948 © Paul Delvaux Foundation, Belgium

This ‘attractive and informative catalogue’ is ‘most welcome’ says Alexander Adams – little else is available in English on an artist who has been too long neglected

Paul Delvaux by Anna Swinbourne

Paul Delvaux (1897–1994) has been a staple of surveys of Surrealism since the late 1930s, but he is poorly understood aesthetically, intellectually and biographically. Although ‘Surrealism’ is a suitable description of his mature style, which he came to in the mid-1930s, it does not sufficiently explain his interests and influences.

Delvaux was not engaged by the automatism, anti-clericalism, spontaneous performances, group activities and Communist politics that were the staples of the Surrealist movement, based in Paris 1924–40. He was also detached from the Surrealist groups in his native Belgium. His greatest attachments were to the dreams and possibilities of Classical and Antique art and literature and its modern manifestations in cinema, with Surrealism acting mainly as a method of freeing Delvaux from the academicism of the 19th century, which had burdened other artists exploring mythological subjects.

This solo exhibition in London (remarkably, his first British solo show) at Blain | Di Donna [see Rosalind Ormiston’s review in June’s Cassone]  presented a selection of 20 works – oils, ink-wash drawings and watercolours – that covered the artist’s classic period from 1936 to 1979. These are discussed in the catalogue. We meet female nudes in nocturnal dreamscapes of the Mediterranean, his staple subject. In paintings of the 1950s skeletons are presented in religious scenes, acting out roles usually assigned to the characters of Biblical paintings.  This selection is a reasoned introduction to audiences who are not familiar with Delvaux’s art, as it presents classic images and subjects painted in his typical style, avoiding the earlier phases of Impressionism and Expressionism and the last period, when the artist altered his palette noticeably.

The recent explosion of interest in Delvaux – among public, historians, critics and collectors – will no doubt lead to further exhibitions and publications. This attention cannot come soon enough, as (starting during his lifetime) Delvaux was overshadowed by more orthodox Surrealists and deserves to be better understood. The attractive and informative catalogue accompanying the London display will help.

A foreword by Natascha van Deun, executive president of the Delvaux Foundation, is followed by an essay by New-York-based art historian Anna Swinbourne, which outlines Delvaux’s engagement with women as a subject for his art. Plates illustrate at full-page size all works shown in London and the preceding New York stage of the exhibition. Exceptionally – and pleasingly – these works are given detailed descriptions, bibliographies and exhibition histories. A multi-page chronology covers Delvaux’s life and a bibliography lists useful publications. It is bound in hardback with a purple velveteen surface and textured front- and endpapers and will surely become a collectible title for the growing group of fans of Delvaux.

This catalogue is most welcome given the poor state of English-language literature on Delvaux. Considering this, it is perhaps understandable that he has been neglected. Catalogues raisonnés of his paintings and prints are incomplete; there is no comprehensive monograph written originally in English; French titles have been poorly translated into English. The only extensive study of Delvaux in English (by David Scott, 1997) is greatly flawed and is best avoided. Let us hope that future Delvaux publications in English will match the standard of this new one.

Paul Delvaux  by Anna Swinbourne is published by  Blain | Di Donna, New York. 96pp., fully illustrated in colour, hbk, $50.00/£35.00 ISBN: 978-0-9840447-3-3


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

Editor's notes

In the first half of 2013, the exhibition ‘Paul Delvaux’ was shown in New York and then London by the gallery Blain|Di Donna. The catalogue is available from the gallery's branches  in London and New York:

6 Hill Street, London W1J 5NF

981 Madison Avenue, New York 10075

For more images of Paul Delvaux's work, see Rosalind Ormiston's review of the Blain|Di Donna exhibition in London, in June's Cassone.

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