Progression of Art
The Awakening of the Forest
The Awakening of the Forest was inspired by Delvaux's childhood fascination with Jules Verne. Here, he depicts his interpretation of a scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the protagonists stumble upon an untouched, primeval forest. A full silvery moon illuminates a forest where primal nude figures frolic, recline, climb trees, and play instruments. They seem at one with the forest, embracing the trees with leaves in their hair. Clothed figures, the protagonists from the book, intrude on the naked revelers. At the left foreground, Professor Lidenbrock from the novel, wearing evening dress and a red bow tie, examines a stone. The man standing directly behind the professor is a self-portrait of Delvaux as the character Axel from the book. At the far right of the composition, a woman in a red dress walks alone with her back to the viewer. The rich reds of these figures' clothing contrast with the dark green of the forest and the creamy hues of the nudes' skin. The viewer's eye is drawn to the full moon at the center of the painting, which casts an unearthly glow over the scene.
There is no communication between any of the figures. The scientists, forest people, and mysterious clothed woman are all oblivious to one another. All of the elements that make this image bizarre, even disturbing, are hallmarks of Delvaux's work: the mixing of opposing elements, the ethereal light, the distinct perspectival space, the interest in nudes, and, perhaps most importantly, the still eerie mood. This painting seems largely indebted to Édouard Riou, whose illustrations of moonlit underground forests were tremendously influential on Delvaux in his formative years.
Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago
Le Rue de Tramway
In this discomfiting painting, enigmatic nude women in various architectural spaces compete with the eerie lighting and mysterious subject matter for our attention. As was typical of Delvaux's works, there are many incongruous elements vying for our attention here, creating a feeling of anxiety. A tram, which seems to be heading straight toward the viewer, moves through the center of the composition; behind a wall in the distance there are industrial-looking buildings; and flanking the tram tracks are seemingly ordinary buildings. As ordinary as each of these features may be on their own, their convergence gives the painting a dreamlike quality. The harsh light that falls across one side of the painting contributes to the mysterious tone. While it thrusts the foremost figures into the spotlight, the other nudes across the street are cast into murky shadows. Furthermore, the nude women in the buildings are not ordinary domestic figures. The calm anticipation of the nudes, who are posed in doorways, might suggest that these women are prostitutes awaiting their clients. They also allude to classical sculpture, but their fleshy coloring suggests reality - real women in a real house. The association of the women with prostitutes is also founded in the real world, since there were red light districts near the train stations of Brussels. Thus, the citizens of Brussels may already have had an association between nude women and trains. Sigmund Freud, whose work was seminal for the Surrealists, had suggested that trains were a sexual symbol, but Delvaux said that he found such Freudian theories unimportant. For Delvaux the tram was a means of expressing his own personal childhood interests, and the nostalgia inherent to that. Ultimately, the contrast between opposites and the inability of the viewer to reconcile those opposites creates distance and discomfort.
Oil on canvas - Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
La Ville Inquiète
Naked citizens stumble around on the outskirts of a jumbled city of Greco-Roman buildings and chimneystacks. They run, point, embrace, and undress as they cross the bare ground from the city towards a lake in the distance. Under the tiny sliver of a crescent moon the pale skin of the nude figures contrasts with the yellow glow that emanates from the foreground to the stone city gate in the background. Men wearing bowler hats calmly observe the scene, one staring inscrutably at a skull. At the top right corner of the painting, a woman in a red dress stands out from the crowd; she is the only person in the composition who enters the city.
Delvaux began this painting during the Nazi invasion of Belgium and noted that "the psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish." This might account for the intense drama and tension of this scene, whose title translates rather fittingly as "The Concerned City." The prominent man in the bowler hat was based on a real man Delvaux had observed in the street. By including this man in the painting, Delvaux illustrates a certain apprehension. He said that "his very mediocrity tells us something." The tension created by the odd juxtapositions, such as the clothed and naked figures, along with the collective sense of impotence and panic among the figures, powerfully suggests Delvaux's personal struggles living under Nazi occupation, while also suggesting that painting was, for him, a form of escapism.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
A Siren in Full Moonlight
A pearly-skinned siren, or mermaid, bathed in moonlight lies on a plinth at the center of a city square, surrounded by classical architecture. Under the bright moon the colors of the inky blue sky, the green trees, and the purple stone plinth seem rich and velvety. The mermaid admires - and perhaps puzzles over - the glittering scales of her tail. The classical architecture, trees, and streetlamps are all arranged according to strict linear perspective, showing Delvaux's interest in Renaissance painting. The combination of the rational order of linear perspective and the irrational scene of a seemingly living mermaid sitting atop a plinth like a statue is unsettling. Mermaids themselves have a sense of mystery and danger, for they were mythological femme fatales who seduced men and led them to their demise.
As a child Delvaux loved the story of the Sirens in The Odyssey. A deadly beauty, the sirens enchant men with their magical song, but at the end of the song the sirens pull their victims beneath the waves to their deaths. The cool blue tones of the classical buildings match the blue of the distant sea, emphasising the mermaid's dual nature; both aquatic and terrestrial, sea-creature and woman. Although there is little action in the image, the atmospheric shadows and the strange color of the moonlight add drama to the already peculiar scene, leaving the viewer questioning the meaning behind this painting.
Oil on panel - Southampton City Art Gallery
In the 1950s Delvaux painted a series of religious paintings on the subject of the Passion of Christ, which had been a popular subject in Medieval and Renaissance art. In this image, Christ is depicted as a skeleton on the cross between two other crucified skeletons. Below the skeletons gather the armoured centurions. The skeleton of Christ is illuminated in bright light, but all the other figures are in shadow.
When he approached the traditional Christian subject of The Passion, he did not want to simply follow the precedents set by the Old Masters, instead deciding to replace the human figure. His intention was to use the skeletons to draw our attention to life and its absence, to remind us of the drama and the fragility of life. Either oblivious or indifferent to the shock these paintings would have on the public, Delvaux submitted them to the 27th Venice Biennial in 1954. The Patriarch of Venice, (who would later become Pope John XXIII) was horrified when he saw the paintings, denouncing them as blasphemous.
Oil on wood - Royal Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels
Homage to Jules Verne
In this late work, Delvaux depicts an assortment of nude and clothed figures in a dark, glossy space reminiscent of a train station. In many ways, this painting is a convergence of Delvaux's lifelong passions, as it includes many of his themes. In the far background, a ship sails at sea. The relationship between the artificially lit architectural space of the foreground and the seascape in the background is unclear and seems to defy reality; it seems as though the central platform under the roof is some sort of magical portal to the world beyond, adding to the paintings mood of confusion and disquiet. This is the culmination of Delvaux's artistic aims, and his interest in "poetic shock."
This painting emphasizes the conflict between the human and the industrial, nostalgia and modernity, emotion and reason, and private and public. The effect is an atmosphere that is at once familiar and unknowable. Our eye is led to the ship on the horizon, suggesting the possibility of adventure elsewhere - beyond. But, as always, it is the assemblage of figures who seem not to notice one another that creates the sense of surreal beauty, melancholy, and nostalgia that is so unique to Delvaux's oeuvre.
Oil on Canvas - Fondation de Paul Delvaux, Saint-Idesbald