By Tony Zaza, May 31, 2013
While other fine arts venues continue to exploit the unwashed and uneducated, Blain-DiDonna Gallery continues to offer opportunities to re-examine artists whose work reinterprets our notions of the nature of artistic expression, while at the same time preserving their integrity and mystery. Following their stimulating Hans Arp show comes the enigma of Paul Delvaux, whose painterly gaze extends into imaginative mindscapes.
Delvaux lived for nearly a century. More an orphan from than a practitioner of the Surrealist agenda, the artist had been given a comfortable childhood and a classical education, but had no enthusiasm for the law career his father desired of him. After World War I, having briefly studied drawing for a possible architect career, he appears to have been seduced by the sensuality of art, and took to painting. At first, he worked on conventional landscapes of no particular significance. Later he mastered the skills that would characterize his most mature work.
He was blessed with the luxury of being able to travel at will, and this provided the source of his haunting imagery. In 1934, Delvaux entered the Walloon village of Spy, where he harvested the fruit for his fertile dreamstates in obscurity and solitude. From then on, each work was a ticket he gave to the viewer, enabling their journey through his hallucinatory landscapes.
These sojourns take us through the mind of the artist, a psychic universe inhabited most predominantly by naked women. By 1946, some of renderings of these curvaceous females were labeled obscene after being exposed at the Julien Levy gallery in New York.
Perhaps it is the tuffets of body hair or the vain disengagement of their gaze, but these nudes have a silent agenda that the viewer must decode. The foreground tears apart one’s focus from the architectonics carefully placing the formal elements in perspective. While his attention to detail was extraordinary, his palette was quite limited to mauves, lavenders, burnt sienna, and deathly pallid flesh tones. Deep rose, deep crimson, and violet predominate the oils. Grays and purples define the tone of his print work. These Lenten hues suggest the women are not “nude” objects, but rather, naked penitents existentially vulnerable and awaiting their judgment in the halfway house between heaven and hell. They are babes in limbo.
One might consider that his obsession with women was a kind of prison from which he was powerless to escape, except within the confines of the canvas, and later the mural. In his life, women were powerful figures. Yet, he is seemingly an incurable romantic, allowing us to delve ever deeper into his erotic neurosis. He takes a slight detour from this endless fleshy trek in 1949. This is when he populated his canvases with the iconography of medical skeletons, often thrusting them into biblical tableaux. Curiously, these paintings when shown in the 1954-56 Venice Biennial resulted in the Patriarch of Venice (future Pope John 23rd) to label the works as heretical.
This voyage, pregnant with overt symbolism and trite voyeurism, spectacularly male-oriented, includes a formative detour in 1951 when Delvaux, reunited with his forbidden love, Tam, (Ann-Marie de Martelaere) built a cottage. It was in the style of a fishing cottage in the dunes of Saint-Idesbald and, in 1952 they were married after he and Magritte were exhibited in the Casino at Knikke-le-Zoute. His new work included murals and large frescos increasingly using icons of urbanity like trains, streetcars, stations. These elements were placed alongside Grecian balustrades within murky forests inhabited by nocturnal beings.
In Le Sabbat of 1962, Delvaux indulges in an almost divine serenity. Like an Ingres on acid, this work moves deeper into psychic space. His more complex storytelling tableaus render the unconscious accessible wherein daylight and moonlight devolve. Le Sabbat comments on Georges de la Tour’s candlelit portraits while moving toward the cartoonish simplicity of Medieval fresco. The gaze is the passive lover’s gaze, submissive, resigned, dutiful, yet a distant. Draped in temptation, it is dangerous and perhaps, lethal.
Delvaux never leaves these cubicles of impending seduction and anticipatory pleasure. Everything exudes that which is forbidden, and when his mother makes him promise to abandon the love of his life, he spends a good portion of his time re-creating painterly landscapes of desire and passion deferred. In retrospect, perhaps this had always been the essence of his vision.