Paul Delvaux Museum,
P. Delvauxlaan 42,
In the Flemish town of Veurne (Furnes in French), tucked away with appropriate incongruity between a bandstand and an aviary, stands a bust of Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), the surrealist painter who lived and died among the step-gabled houses painstakingly rebuilt after the devastation wrought by the World Wars.
If the verdigris-covered head in the Veurne park were the only monument to one of Belgium’s most prominent modern painters, it could easily be overlooked, but since April this year, the Paul Delvaux museum, a few kilometres nearer to the Belgian sea front, takes the curious on Delvaux’s journey from realism to surrealism.
In a greatly enlarged fisherman’s cottage in Paul Delvauxlaan (rue Paul Delvaux), a leafy oasis compared with the rest of Belgium’s heavily built-up coastal area, the museum curators regularly change the paintings on display from their huge collection.
They also stage temporary exhibitions – until January, a touching selection of the hand-made Christmas greetings cards Delvaux sent to his friends – and they have faithfully reproduced Delvaux’s studio, complete with models of the trains he loved.
Trains are one of the leitmotifs of Delvaux’s life and work.
“When I was seven, I used to want to be a station master. To this day, I love trains. I can spend hours prowling through stations. And then sometimes I imagine a train serving no purpose, a train you can never catch. It’s a subject that’s dear to me, a childhood memory,” he wrote.
Trains link bustling scenes at Brussels’ Gare du Luxembourg painted in rich, earthy rust colours, hot with steam or else coated with snow, and the later surrealism when the atmosphere switches to dreamlike and silent.
After a period of realism, which for some is Delvaux’s most appealing work, he went through an expressionist phase and a period of self-doubt as he sought his own voice and painted over many of his early canvasses.
Then, in the 1930s, Delvaux fell under the influence of Italian metaphysicist Giorgio de Chirico as well as his fellow Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.
Among the results are female nudes, with glazed, hypnotised stares, juxtaposed with trains and station platforms in strange, unnatural light or set in precisely-drawn classical settings.
Another obsession is skeletons – a veiled reference to the convulsion of World War II – and reminiscent of another Belgian painter James Ensor.
Also in common with Ensor, whose Christ’s Entry into Brussels provoked outrage, Delvaux managed to offend the religious establishment by replacing all the characters with skeletons in his depiction of the Entombment of Christ.
Delvaux’s response to criticism from others and from himself was to keep trying.
Painting, he said, was a process of finding a subject that seems wonderful until you put it on canvas.
“One should stay satisfied if only a small part survives in the painting,” he said.
The consolation, he added, in a surprise turn of phrase for an artist but perhaps not for a Belgian, was that “like a racing cyclist” you would do better next time.
Barbara Lewis © 2015.