Tag Archives: 1947

Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Hôtel Particulier and Art of Paul Delvaux

24 Feb

“All my life I’ve tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream.”

(Paul Delvaux)

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus (La Venus Endormie), 1944

Serge Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson” released on 24 March 1971 has a Lolitaesque theme and in seven unique yet connected songs tells a tale of an older gentleman (Serge) who, by accident, collides his car into the red bicycle of a sweet and pretty schoolgirl called Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin). This chance seemingly unhappy encounter blossoms into a flower of seduction and romance as the gentleman takes Melody to a hotel. This part of the musical story is told in the fifth song “L’hôtel particulier“. Needless to say, I very much enjoy the variety of different musical styles on the album’s songs, and I love the innocently-sexy Jane Birkin in the videos, but it is the video for this song “L’hôtel particulier” that fascinates me in particular because it features the wondrous paintings of the Belgian Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) who was actually still alive during the time the album was made. Not only alive, but also very prolific. Even though he was the last surviving Surrealist during his life, he was a wanderer and an individualist in the Surrealist crowd who created a unique dream-like world on his canvases which feature repetitive motifs; Classical architecture, nocturnal setting, nude women whose bodies are white as snow and appear smooth as marble, skeletons, crescent moon, trains, boudoirs.

The shaping of Delvaux’s art career was a slow and steady process because at first his parents pressured him into studying architecture, it was something he didn’t enjoy but it did serve him greatly later in creating the strange, accurately depicted yet eerie spaces in his paintings. In 1934 Delvaux saw the Surrealist exhibition “Minotaure” and this inspired him to start working in the direction of Surrealism because it led him back to the imaginative state of childhood. Delvaux’s art also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s cold and enigmatic worlds where architecture is drawn with precision yet the overall effect is unsettling. In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy and the architecture inspired him to serve as a setting for the world of his languid dead-eyed hypnotised nudes. Delvaux painted some wonderful eerie paintings even in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the paintings chosen for Gainsbourg’s video were mostly painted in the 1940s. The World War II period was a harsh one for Delvaux as it was for everyone, but it only inspired him to paint more and to retreat into the world of his imagination. The artist stated “I would like to create a fabulous painting in which I would live, in which I could live.”

As a child he was afraid of skeletons but later in life he found a way to incorporate them into his nocturnal worlds, bones glistening in moonlight, death opposing the sensuality of the women’s nude flesh. One such skeleton pops up in the painting “Sleeping Venus” painted in 1944, and unlike skeletons in James Ensor’s art (a fellow Belgian painter), Delvaux’s skeleton is unashamed of himself, he doesn’t put on a mask or hide under some garish carnival clothes. Nude Venus is sweetly asleep on a divan in front of the temple-like building while the skeleton is having a fascinating conversation with a Belle Epoque woman with a large brimmed hat and a dark red dress. The conversation is so fascinating that not even the passing couple, Serge and Jane, can interrupt it. Even though Delvaux’s paintings aren’t directly connected to the music and the song, I think they create a striking background visually which really leaves the viewer interested.

Bellow I’ve compared Delvaux’s paintings to stills from the video:

Paul Delvaux, The Echo, 1943

Paul Delvaux, Night Train, 1947

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

Paul Delvaux, Le nu et le mannequin (Le nu au mannequin), signed and dated ‘P.Delvaux 12-47’, December 1947

Paul Delvaux – The Strollers

16 Feb

I believe in the future resolution in these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.’ (Andre Breton)

1947. The Strollers, Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)Paul Delvaux, The Strollers, 1947

Female bodies, classical architecture, night setting – it must be a work of Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), a Belgian Surrealist painter. Despite the realistic character of objects in his paintings, the all together effect is extraordinary. In compositions of Paul Delvaux, this strangeness arises from the mysterious and alluring dimension of a dream. As if the atmosphere in his paintings and the characters in it are referring solely to the space of dreams. Presumable coldness of the marble contrasts the pale, soft-skinned, nude bodies of two women, and, because of this contrast the painting seems both real and excitingly fantastical an the same time.

Scene depicts two strollers, walking around, what seems to be, an abandoned city. Behind them is a Greek or Roman temple, its white marble shining in the light of a full moon. While the blonde woman is taller, more voluptuous, and seems older and experienced, the other one seems younger and more maiden-like. It seems as if the blonde woman is explaining something to the younger one, and introducing her in a certain trade. However, both of them have lowered their tunics, or pieces of fabric, just enough to reveal their pubic hair. They have a matching headdresses, blue capes, and Egyptian-styled collar necklaces with intricate pattern.

NOTE: All text is referring only to the painting The Strollers, however, I’ve put additional paintings just so you can see Delvaux’s work in general.

1948. In Praise of Melancholy, Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)Paul Delvaux, In Praise of Melancholy, 1948

Still, underneath all that beauty, they seem cold, unattainable, distant figures lost in their own thoughts, aloof and mysterious like some of Catherine Deneuve’s roles. They even look identical, physically, just like all of Delvaux’s females in paintings, they have large almond-shaped eyes, long noses and mocking smiles. Their appearance definitely places them in a realm of dreams. The question arises: is it the artist’s dream, or the dream of those women? Those are the two ways you can observe Delvaux’s art.

Stillness of the temples, blueness of the night sky, loneliness of the square, along with these sensual, ideal, but unattainable female figures, all make this painting a bizarre one. Moon has a significant place in Delvaux’s paintings, and here it’s the full moon, which carries connotations by itself. Full moon is ‘symbolic of the height of power, the peak of clarity, fullness and obtainment of desire.* Even without the symbolism, full Moon is a lovely sight, but, as large and white as it is, it cannot shine with such intensity to lighten the whole city. Contrast of lightness and darkness are particularly interesting in Delvaux’s work; women’s bodies are luminous, but the rest of the space is in shadow. There’s a town square behind the women, a desolate place with pieces of stones scattered around. On the left, there’s a reclining woman, half-covered with purple fabric, with a matching headdress. There are two more women gracing the background; two elegant, slender, ghost-like figures in long white dresses with a bluish gleam.

1947. Delvaux The Great Sirens (1947)Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

I feel like there’s a sense of irony in the title of the painting. Title The Strollers evokes a mood of a lazy and carefree spring afternoon, and it’s a perfect title for a work of Impressionism, but Delvaux’s women here appear rather static, and frozen in the moment. It’s important to bring out a few facts in order to fully understand Delvaux’s art. First of all, he didn’t always paint like this. In the 1930s he was influenced by a Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte, and around 1933 he encountered the Metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico, which proved to have an even greater influence on him. A hint of anguished and slightly disturbing mood of Chirico’s paintings is evident in Delvaux’s work as well, but their styles are different.

1967. Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). ‘’Le Canape Bleu [The Blue Sofa]Paul Delvaux, ‘Le Canape Bleu’ (The Blue Sofa), 1967

In Chirico’s desolate and ominous cityscapes, Delvaux added an ever-appealing sensual female figures,thereby achieving that hedonistic and dreamy atmosphere. That specific mood, present in all of Delvaux’s paintings, reminds me of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music, in particular his composition ‘Isle of the Dead’. Delvaux’s frequent depiction of classical architecture can be traced back to his childhood days, spent reading Homer’s poetry, along with studying Greek and Latin language. He even travelled to Rome at one point. Also, for a while Delvaux studied architecture, but didn’t enjoy it, and dropped out after failing a maths test, but it was worth it in the end, because his skill in painting architectural scenes in unquestionable.