Tag Archives: Belgium

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

James Ensor – Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man

17 Feb

Welcome to the whimsical, colourful and macabre world of the Belgian painter James Ensor.

James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, 1891

Painting “Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man” is a perfect example of the art that Ensor remains known for. Skeletons shouting, skeletons laughing, skeletons dressed in pretty clothes and fancy hats fighting and threatening each other with brooms and umbrellas. Meanwhile, on the far left and far right ends of the canvas a group of masked faces observe in silence. Their faces, or rather the masks they are wearing reveal a whole set of different emotions; anger, curiosity, shock, malice. Ensor’s whimsically knowns no end because in some paintings it is hard to tell whether a figure is a living person or a skeleton wearing a mask in order to trick us into thinking it’s a living flesh and blood. He skilfully combines playfulness with morbidity, eerie sense of transience with joyous hedonism of the carnival. Skeletons wearing clothes, fighting and living normally amongst humans is death itself laughing to our face, it is as if she is saying: you can’t avoid me, so embrace me. Unlike Edvard Munch who had a morbid obsession with death and illness, Ensor’s view on it is neither sad nor tragic. Death is inseparable from the often pointless and often laughable, at once colourful, burdensome and boring carnival of life. He in fact paints it in shiny and vibrant colours, often with the background in white, painted in careful small brushstrokes, showing attention to detail and filing the space with light.

James Ensor (1860-1949) didn’t always paint these kind of vibrant yet twisted scenes full of intrigues. He wasted his early years on painting in a Realistic manner and painting the popular plein air scenes inspired by the Impressionists. But as he approached his thirties, he found his artistic inspiration in something that had been right in front of his nose for years – carnival masks. In his coastal home town of Ostend in Belgium, Ensor’s parents owned a shop that sold masks, mostly for tourists. So, in carnival masks in front of his eyes and skeletons in his imagination, Ensor concocted many and many whimsical paintings with just a slight macabre touch. The faces on masks are perhaps a hint to Bruegel the Elder’s grotesque faces of peasants, but Ensor adds a social critique by portraying his disillusionment in society around him. Those masked faces, for me, perfectly capture the way I see people around me and in the streets; always eager to judge and stuff noses in matters that do not concern them, hiding their true malicious motifs under a mask of smiles and nice words. With its emphasis on surreal world where skeletons and humans live in harmony, and the expressive abilities of human faces with different emotions, Ensor’s art carried a seed that would later blossom into Expressionism and Surrealism, although it’s important to note that he wasn’t as influential on the development of those art movements as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch were.