This February, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is presenting an exhibition on the Belgian painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), an artist represented in both the Museum’s Permanent Collection and the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Organised in collaboration with the Musée d’Ixelles and curated by Laura Neve, that institution’s academic advisor, Paul Delvaux: A Walk with Love and Death will present a thematic survey featuring more than 50 works loaned from public and private collections in Belgium, in particular that of Nicole and Pierre Ghêne, which constitutes the nucleus of this project and is represented by a loan of forty-two works. Fascinated since 1962 by the work of Delvaux, Pierre Ghêne began his collection in the early 1970s. Since that time it has continued to grow and now numbers hundreds of them, most of which are in the Musée d’Ixelles.
Following his experiments with realism, Fauvism and Expressionism, Delvaux discovered the work of Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico. Surrealism was a crucial revelation for the artist, although he never considered himself a Surrealist painter in a strict sense. Delvaux was more interested in Surrealism’s poetic, mysterious facet than its iconoclastic battles, leading him from the 1930s to create his own, unique universe, free of the rules of universal logic and located between classicism and the modern world and between dream and reality. Notable for its stylistic unity, Delvaux’s output is characterised by a strange, enigmatic atmosphere. The principal motifs, ranging from women to trains and including skeletons and buildings, are part of that universe: isolated, self-absorbed, almost somnambulist beings, often located in nocturnal settings and apparently unrelated to each other, the only link between them being the artist’s own experiences.
The exhibition focuses on the five principal themes in Delvaux’s iconography, all revolving around love and death: Reclining Venus, a recurrent motif in his work which refers to his unconditional love for women; The Double (Couples and Mirrors), which focuses on seduction and the relationship with the alter ego; Architectures, which focuses on the omnipresent buildings in his oeuvre, particularly classical ones but also examples from Watermael-Boitsfort (Brussels, Belgium) where he lived; Train Stations; which are essential to the construction of his pictorial personality; and finally, The Skeleton of Life, which analyses Delvaux’s fascination with that motif, which he used as substitutes for live figures engaged in everyday activities.
Born into a family of lawyers, Delvaux received his father’s permission to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels where, after briefly studying architecture, he opted for decorative painting and graduated in 1924. His early works reveal the influence of the Flemish Expressionists such as Constant Permeke and Gustave de Smet, who represented the Belgian avant-garde of the time. At this early date Delvaux began to reveal an interest in depicting the human form, particularly women, which would remain a constant artistic concern throughout his career.
In the mid-1930s Delvaux discovered Surrealism and participated in the International Surrealism Exhibition in Paris in 1938 and in subsequent ones in Amsterdam and Mexico. Nonetheless, he did not join the group and was concerned to maintain his artistic independence.