June 23, 2013 10:00 pm

Paul Delvaux, Blain Di Donna, London – review

This is the first UK show of work by the Belgian surrealist
Paul Delvaux's 'L'Eloge de la Mélancolie' (1948)

Paul Delvaux's 'L'Eloge de la Mélancolie' (1948)

There has never been a UK solo show of Paul Delvaux, the Belgian surrealist – how he disliked that label. British audiences are familiar with just one work, “Sleeping Venus” (1944), at Tate Modern: an odalisque reclining on purple velvet in a classical setting, incongruously dark, open to a night sky, attended by a skeleton. It was painted in 1944 when German-occupied Brussels was being bombed, and Delvaux tried “to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus”.

Blain Di Donna’s non-selling show is most welcome. It chronicles Delvaux from the 1930s – when an encounter with De Chirico’s work made him understand that his goal must be to depict “the climate of silent streets with shadows of people who cannot be seen” – to old age; he stopped making work when he went blind in the 1980s, and he died in 1994, aged 96. Through these decades, he chiselled in paint unchanging, porcelain-cold, passive women, mostly nude, staring as if hypnotised by the modern world around them – trains, railway stations, Brussels street scenes – or frozen into archaic settings of ruins or classical palaces, as in the reclining nude in “L’Eloge de la Mélancolie” or the monumental figure imprisoned in a heavy jewelled grey dress, a century out of date, in “Jeune Fille Devant un Temple”.

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Delvaux considered himself a realist in the minutely detailed Flemish tradition of Van Eyck and Hans Memling; he sought “poetic shock” by “putting heterogeneous but real things together in unexpected ways”. Mermaids frolic in the waves before the urban seafront of Belgium’s coastal resorts, industrial chimneys smoking in the distance, in “Les Nymphes se baignant”; a cast of skeletons re-enact a biblical scene in “La Mise au Tombeau III”; a sinister candlelit party features nude women and a clothed man talking to a mirror in “Le Sabbat”. Thus rejecting the modern world, Delvaux conveyed it anyway: alienation, erotic frustration, the impossibility of escaping the present in the past.

Until July 17, www.blaindidonna.com

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