Blain|Di Donna, London
18 June–17 July 2013
by CELIA WHITE
Belgian painter Paul Delvaux was profoundly influenced by the Surrealists – by Giorgio de Chirico’s dream-like scenes and the stark and uncanny canvases of René Magritte – yet he never explicitly described himself as a Surrealist artist.
It’s nonetheless impossible to dissociate Delvaux from the movement – as the above statement so neatly proves, even where it negates the connection. Blain|Di Donna’s current show of twenty of Delvaux’s oil paintings and a handful of his ink and watercolour drawings deliberately ignores this fact, pointing to the artist’s rejection of the label “Surrealist” and yet offering this exhibition as the fourth in its series of monographic showcases of major Surrealists’ work, which to date have included Magritte, André Masson and Jean Arp.
Yet in re-writing or overwriting history in this way, the gallery, which has organised the show in collaboration with the Paul Delvaux Foundation, has done the artist’s reputation a favour. As a standalone figure, Delvaux is not particularly well known or widely studied; in fact, this is his first ever solo show in the UK. In focusing on work made between the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s, the exhibition has the quality of a small retrospective, one that is enhanced by the fact that none of the works are for sale – surprising for a gallery of this stature.
Despite this retrospective feel, chronology is rejected in the display in favour of a visual resonance between works. One gallery space is a sea of women and water: nudes bathing, mermaids swimming, nymphs whipped by waves, all with eyes unnaturally large, deep and pool-like. Their idealised forms appear stilted, as in Les Nymphes se baignant of 1938, which shows a certain crudeness not only in the figures themselves but also in their emotions and gestures. Delvaux’s obsession with the ancient world, inspired by a trip to Rome in the late 1930s and influenced by the sinister classicism of De Chirico, tempers the (albeit unconscious) Surrealist element of his work, such that his paintings conjure a sense of the fantastical or mythical far more than they do the “super-real”.
It is in Delvaux’s architectural works that we see more of the chilling strangeness that had so attracted him to the works of De Chirico. The exhibition’s fourth room is imbued with a sense of man’s mortality: lamentations, graves and skeletons, all in scenes played out on empty stages, with unlikely dimensions and an unnatural stillness. In La Mise au tombeau III (The Entombment III) (1957) skeletons grieve over a stone tomb against a backdrop of electricity pylons that recede into the paved distance. As with the mermaids depicted swimming among industrial structures in Les Femmes devant la mer (Les Ondines) (1943) in the first room of the show, in La Mise Delvaux sets a tone of distress not through the emotions and appearance of the skeletons themselves, but through a heavily foreboding sky and scenery and its harsh contrast with the narrative element to which it forms the background.
The most compelling works on show are in fact not the paintings, but the ink and watercolour drawings that Delvaux made alongside them throughout his career. In these drawings, the use of freer, gestural strokes presents a far more convincing artificiality than the rigid world that emerges in Delvaux’s oils. Although the nude in the ink-and-watercolour drawing Les Adieux (1964) is more static, and her face more mask-like, than even the painted nudes, the scratchy, urgent strokes delineating her figure, the curtained backdrop and the waves, trees and boardwalk behind it are far more emotionally sophisticated than his more “finished” works; they are an eloquent expression of the desperation and melancholy that accompanies “goodbye”. It may simply be the artist’s choice of medium, then, rather than his aesthetic separation from Surrealism, that has meant his paintings have less successfully survived the history of art’s ruthless editing process.
The problem with staging what is essentially a museum show in a commercial gallery, or in Blain DiDonna in particular, is the uninspiring nature of the space. Consisting of a series of lifeless, muted rooms, this environment seems to suck the vibrancy and emotion from these paintings, if it was ever present. What’s more, they are dryly displayed, given abundant space to breathe and shout yet unable to make themselves heard. Perhaps this deadness is the fault of the paintings themselves, yet it’s easy to imagine how disturbing they could be, swimming on a surface of red or blue, hung high on the wall, staring creepily down as if from a more sinister, less fathomable realm.