The quiet exactness of dreams

Glances at the work of Paul Delvaux (I) – English Version*
*[Catalan Version just here]


1. The trains – Les trains

I cannot begin this first post in a series about Paul Delvaux without referring to his trains and stations and showing some of the best paintings he did of them.

Trains -electric, diesel or older, steam-powered- always were a subject of special interest to this Belgian (Walloon) artist, who never forgot the wonder he felt as a small child at the sight of the first electric trams in Brussels. He also fell soon in love with the classical Greco-Roman antiquity and the world -so futurist then- of Jules Verne.

-If we look closely at Le Viaduc (The Viaduct), an oil on canvas from 1963, we will find collected many of the elements that fill the work of the artist: the lampposts and diverse lanterns, the electric poles, the chimneys, the deserted streets, the culvert covers, the moonlit night -from a moon not visible here, unlike other works-, the carpet, the mirror that returns an image from outside the canvas, where the painter is (and consequently from a reality that is both alien and proper to the painting; inside and outside; past and present; a true interdimensional threshold), the door and the slatted fence… And above all, the absence. Everything lies in wait for something which does not happen and keeps us stopped, as mesmerized, in contemplation.  

The suspense, calm as it is, becomes more and more disturbing; the naïve realism we noticed at first, becomes fantasy and dreamlike evocation; the quiet exactness leads us to solitude and dread.



2. Girls who look at the trains. Stations – Des jeunes filles qui regardent les trains. Des gares 

Prior to this uninhabited painting from 1963, in the late 50s’, Paul Delvaux painted a fair number of evening and night scenes where the trains are watched by a little girl (sometimes two) placed in the foreground, seen from the back. All of them depict the same types of pavement on platforms and streets, the same light poles and wooden fences, the same lanterns, similar houses apparently inhabited -in spite of the light in doors and windows-, trains that nobody drives, in which nobody travels… And the girl or girls, who look as well, to an extent, devoid of life, although not of soul… They are probably girls from another world or, at least, from another time (that of the painter’s childhood, as it seems to me).

The Moon is almost always present, be it waxing or waning or full (or new, as I believe it may be the case in ‘Le Viaduc’, even though there it might be also hidden behind the marquee at the right hand side).

Le Vicinal (The Suburban Track [or Road]) is the epitome of this whole series, and one of my favourite among Delvaux’s paintings. Without containing anything overtly weird or surreal, the combination of all the elements and the impossible clarity of the waning moon and the lamppost become hallucinatory, making this painting an undisputed chef-d’œuvre’ of Surrealism.

Note as well that the three light sources (the Moon, the streetlamp and the rear wagon of the train) conform, along with the girl (which is another light of another kind), a cross turned sideways; and note that the combined shadows of the trees bordering the local road seem to represent wanting to swallow the head of the girl -even though they barely touch her hat-. (This cross would naturally be the cross of Christ, and therefore the cross of death and life; another of the main themes in Delvaux’s work -which I will illustrate in a following article; the third in this series.) 



-Solitude (1955), La Gare Forestière (The Forest Station, (1960) and Train du Soir (Evening Train) (1957) display variations on this surreal, hypnotic and, to some extent, hallucinated character. They are also composed according to a pattern of one or more crosses:







3. The nude or dressed girls – Les filles nues ou en robe

To conclude this first post on the work of Delvaux, I bring here, in full, the enormous “Le Voyage Légendaire” (The Legendary Journey) from 1974 (high: 4,40 m – length: 13,12 m). An oil on 5 canvas mounted on aluminium frames, assembled. It belongs in the old Jacques Nellens’ collection for the ‘Casino de Chaudfontaine’, moved later on to the ‘Casino de Knokke-le-Zoute’. Paul Delvaux, who was already 77 years old, was assisted by Raymond Art, Fernand Flausch, Alain Denis et M.Huysmans in the making of the work.


This is a very emblematic piece of Paul Delvaux’s art. As usual, the association of elements from reality -the cave, the thick forest, the naked or dressed girls, the trains and tracks meticulously illustrated in the small station, the lights and electricity poles, the moon, the mailbox …- without any immediate or manifest logic becomes strange; it attracts and worries us at once; it has a clear air of “surreality” (however much Delvaux rejected to be considered a surrealist!). Two different worlds coexist here: the bucolic, timeless one, populated by girls looking like vestals, and the modern, mechanized one, brighter and more understandable at a first glance -even though the locomotive running towards the viewer and the black caboose at its side generate some restlessness, like a vague threat. This recurrent confrontation of different realities is quite the mark of the painter. In his trains no one can fail to glimpse a masculine symbol, since they are always in relation to female bodies, and moreover the trains are shown profusely surrounded by poles and lampposts and picket fences and power pylons. Also, intelligibly, the very wooden fence that divide the painting in two halves is open, allowing mutual fit of both worlds.

Le Voyage Légendaire may be interpreted reading it from left to right: from the woman of the origins, attired with leaves, in front of the cave, through the biblical Eve and the Greco-Roman Aphrodite (which appear significantly twice: first, naked; then more o less dressed), to women of the industrial age, dressed from head to toe, waiting for the trains and perhaps ready to go away in the black wagon or, maybe, in the other train that is just arriving.

Read from right to left, as I do, this painting serves me well to link this post with the next one in the series on Delvaux: Nudes, lampposts, abstracted scholars and first skeletons. (As a matter of fact, that fair-skinned, red-haired “Eve”, of great beauty, who stares at us from the very middle of “The Legendary Journey” has led me to choose the heading photo for the following post (with a real girl, seen from behind, photographing on her part an especially fine painting –La Vénus Endormie- exhibited at the museum).

You can also see this photo here down:

Girl taking a picture of “La Vénus Endormie” by Paul Delvaux, 1944

No unauthorised copying or redistribution. All Rights Reserved. Registered & Protected  ZR1Q-9QGU-ACTU-HBIS

17 thoughts on “The quiet exactness of dreams

  1. Very picturesque here as well……a sense of calm yet there is a turning, life is going on here. Everyone is preparing to do, to be, and yet, with the art depicting night, it is very tranquil in its business…..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is much incredible talent and beauty to contemplate here, much more than I am competent to comment on at the present time, but I shall be returning for further visits, and I certainly appreciate and admire the work both the artist and you have done here ! Thank you, brother !

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciate a lot your words, dear John ! But you flatter me in excess :-/
    As for P. Delvaux, he was quite exceptional and deserves much more recognition than he has got so far. I’m now working in the second and third chapters of this little essay on him and I expect to publish them soon.
    I’m really sorry you still feel under the weather ; I wish you a prompt recovery !
    Big hugs, bro. Take much care of yourself !


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s