Paul Delvaux’s stuff of dreams

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Once you see the paintings of Paul Delvaux you are unlikely to forget them. The dreamlike mood and quaint atmosphere is unique and hypnotic. But where does the mysterious power of his art come from? The exhibition “Paul Delvaux: Dream Odyssey” at the Museum of Modern Art Saitama (MOMAS) offers some clues.

The show is on its own odyssey, touring six museums in Japan, with MOMAS as the fourth. It is also the second time at a venue close to Tokyo — last year it was at the Fuchu Art Museum on the Western outskirts of the city.

We can deduce from this that Delvaux or the particular works on this tour don’t quite merit a show at a more central and prestigious venue. This is borne out by a closer look at the work and the artist.

Although the exhibition boasts 80 works, a large proportion of these are merely sketches, doodles and studies. The finished paintings included in the show are well worth seeing, but they don’t quite seem to be his best work. And even if they were, Delvaux still wouldn’t quite merit a show at a top museum, as he falls just under “great painter” status.

Delvaux’s technique is limited; his motifs repetitive and unadventurous; and his art-historical relevance limited. He is often cited as part of the Surrealist movement, along with fellow Belgian René Magritte. On the surface this seems plausible, as one of the aspects the Surrealists were most interested in was dreaming, and there is no denying the dreamlike qualities of Delvaux’s work. But his art also lacks the experimental and exploratory dynamic of Surrealism.

Delvaux’s art is more about the ritualistic rearranging of the same limited elements: classical backdrops, doe-eyed maidens and the occasional train. In a sense he is rather like Marc Chagall. Early on, both artists discovered their artistic comfort zones, and spent the rest of their careers ensconced there.

This exhibition does a good job examining how he stumbled upon his iconic style. Early sub-realist sketches and sub-impressionist paintings reveal a tentative interest in the motifs that were later to become dominant.

An important early influence was the Greek-born Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, who first painted surreal, neo-classical cityscapes with oddly aligned shadows; but whereas De Chirico peopled his paintings with faceless mannequins, Delvaux found a more pleasing focus in the naked damsels who sleepwalk through his paintings.

Their presence also serves to emphasize the absence of the male. It is this lack that leads us to search for it in a cod-Freudian way in the landscape, architecture and finally, and most convincingly, in the phallic symbol of the trains.

“Paul Delvaux: Dream Odyssey” at the Museum of Modern Art Saitama runs till March 21; open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.momas.jp