Paul Delvaux was born in Belgium, but as his career was developed in the shadow of Nazi Germany, his works contain a distinct sign of anxiety and discomfort, although that uneasiness is not expressed in overt political themes. Although he was influenced by Giorgio de Chirico and Rene Magritte, he was not an official member of the Surrealist. However, his works were based on bizarre subjects and he created disturbing scenes. But unlike his contemporaries, he added sensual female nudes in the desolate and creepy scenes in his own style, creating a dreamy or mesmerising atmosphere.
Inspired by his childhood fascination with Jules Verne, PaulDelvaux in his Awakening of the Forest (1939) evidently depicted his interpretation of a scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the characters of the novel seem to be accidentally found themselves in a primitive forest, where primal nude figures frolic, recline, climb trees, and play instruments under a full silver moon. It appears that the nude figures are part of the primitive forest, embracing or climbing or reclining on the trees with leaves in their hair and the clothed figures, the protagonists of the novel, intrude on the naked merrymakers.
In the left foreground of the canvas, a figure represents Professor Lidenbrock, a character from the novel, wearing an evening dress and a red bow tie, examines a stone and the man standing directly behind the professor represents the artist himself, as the character Axel from the book. There is also a woman in a red dress at the far right of the composition, walking alone with her back to the viewer.
However, none of the figures appearing in the painting seem to be aware of the presence of the others, and nobody is in communication with any other.The unclothed men and women in the forest, the Professor deeply absorbed inexamining the pebble, even the mysterious lady dressed in red, are all oblivious to one another. The mixing of the opposing elements, the ethereal light, the distinct perspective of space, the interest in nudes and perhaps most importantly, the uncanny eerie mood that make the setting extremely unearthly, made the painting bizarre and even disturbing. Nevertheless, those were the specialities and hallmarks of Paul Delvaux.Although Paul Delvaux was influenced by Giorgio de Chirico, the Awakening of the Forest seems to be deeply influenced by French illustratorÉdouard Riou, who illustrated six novels by Jules Verne.
La Rue de Tramway is another disturbing work of Paul Delvaux that depicts enigmatic nude women in various architectural spaces, dimly lit with unearthly creepy lighting. Like many other typical works of the artist, it contains several intriguing and discordant elements that create a feeling of anxiety and apprehension.
It depicts a tram moving through the centre of the composition, seemingly heading straight towards the viewers, with a factory building far at its back.The tram tracks run in between the seemingly ordinary buildings and their concurrence gave the sequence an unearthly and dreamlike appearance. The harsh light illuminating the tram tracks and one of its sides, also contributes to the mysterious tone of the painting and gives prominence to the foremost nude figures, while the nudes on the lower and upper floors of the building across the road are cast in murky shadows.
However, it seems that the nude figures are not really domestic women, their gait of posing patiently in doorways suggest that they are actually prostitutes, waiting eagerly for their possible clients in calm anticipation. They allude to classical sculpture, but their fleshy colouring suggestsreality.Although trams are recurrently used by Paul Delvaux as a motif, as a classic sexual metaphor, according to Sigmund Freud, he probably used the tram and the inexpressive women displaying themselves in windows and doorways, to suggest sexual tension.
Sleeping Venus was painted by Paul Delvauxin Brussels during the Second World War, while the city was being bombed. It depicts Venus, sleeping with her legs apart in a town with some nude women huddling in the background and its temples lined with horses’ heads, under the crescent moon. While a nude woman, standing near the head of her bed, seems to mean something with her raised hands, like the mourning for death, askeleton and an expressionless dress model, witha hat decorated by the red flower, stand at the other end, looking at the sleeping Venus.
Among the nude women in the distance, one was crouching in pain, while the figures in the foreground, facing the skywere begging. Venus made her legs take apart as she dreamed of the lure of death and possibly, the combination of her youthful beauty and death, symbolising desire and terror,made the painting disturbing. It obscurely expressed the ideas of love and death and showed the unchanged desire and destiny since ancient times.
Paul Delvauxhad painted three versions of his Sleeping Venus and this is the final and the most typical version,which he completed in 1944. While the darkly coloured work is a dreamlike depiction, all its characters have a dreamy appearance, as if they were added to the work without any reasoning.
Paul Delvaux always cherished the memory of the thrill that he felt at the sight of the first electric trams in Brussels and trains had always been a subject of his prime interest. He produced several night scenes containing a little girl observing the trains from behind. Although those compositions are not overtly surrealistic,the clarity of their moonlit detail is hallucinatory in effect.
TheNight Train, housed in the Museum of Modern Art, Toyama in Japan, was painted at a time when the artist felt trapped in a loveless marriage. During that period, he intensely intended to paint the drudgery of boredom, dejection and was desperate to get away from the pathetic situation. In his Night Train,Paul Delvauxtried to capture the beauty of the waiting room in an empty station, where several people pass by briefly before leaving, but they have no importance, as the station has its own life.The main theme of the work seems to be the articulation of a terrifying emptiness, which is considered a powerful poetic expression of the overwhelming sense of the terrible helplessness and mentally torturing imprisonment that Delvaux was experiencing at the time.The Night Train depicts the stillness and lethargic boredomof a station waiting room, infused with the languid erotic mystery of a sleeping nude, while a lonesome train pulling into a station.While the nude casually lies bored and restless underneath a bleak sign advertising the endless cycle of arrivals and departures, the moonlit station clock and the empty gaze of the upright receptionist sitting impassively at her desk, echoed by her reflection in the mirror. Everything appearing in the painting seems to emphasize the frozen nature of time and space extending into infinity.
Several paintings of Paul Delvaux contain nude or semi-nude women who seem to be mesmerised, gazing languidly into space or gesturing mysteriously, sometimes reclining incongruously in a train station or wandering through classical buildings. His work, titled A Siren in Full Moonlight depicts a pearly-skinned voluptuous siren, a mermaid, lying on a purple stone velvety plinth at the centre of a city square, bathed in moonlight and surrounded by a series of green trees and classical architecture, under the bright full moon in the inky blue sky.
As the sirens, as well as the mermaids, were mythological femme fatales who seduce men and led them to their demise, the absurd combination of the rational order of linear perspective and the irrational scene of a seemingly living mermaid lying atop a plinth like a statue is unsettling. The cool blue tones of the classical buildings resemble the blue of the distant sea, which signifies the dual nature of the mermaids, both aquatic and terrestrial, sea-creature and woman.Although the scene represents little action and looks like a still-life picture, the atmospheric shadows and the strange creepy colour of the moonlight add a dramatic effect to the already unusual and strange scene.