Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
Words in the Paintings of Paul Delvaux
Author: David Scott
Abstract (E): In Delvaux's paintings, the word or fragment of text brings with it a feeling of the uncanny that signals the return of an obsession or a repressed memory. In pictorial terms, Delvaux's concern with the return of hidden or buried elements of human experience is shown in the evocation of images revealing the deeper structure either of the human body or of visible reality. This deconstructive tendency also extends to the conventions of visual representation. So, Delvaux's pictures show a deep concern for perspective, for pictorial verisimilitude and the accurate presentation of details, an obsession also apparent in the play of mirror reflections, framing and optical devices. This paper shows how these preoccupations expressing the artist's anxiety in the face of reality, and its pictorial representation, are also revealed by the insertion of words into his paintings.
Abstract (F): Dans la peinture de Delvaux, le mot ou le fragment de texte amène infailliblement le sentiment d'inquiétante étrangeté qui signale le retour d'un objet refoulé ou la reprise d'une obsession. En termes picturaux, le souci de Delvaux quant au retour d'éléments cachés ou ensevelis de l'expérience humaine se traduit par l'évocation d'images qui révèlent la structure profonde, soit du corps humain soit de la réalité visible. Cette tendance déconstructrice, à la fois angoissée et volontaire, s'étend aussi aux conventions même de la représentation visuelle: les tableaux de Delvaux manifestent un profond souci de la perspective, de la vraisemblance picturale et de la présentation fidèle de détails, obsession qui se prolonge souvent en des jeux de miroir, d'encadrement et autres astuces optiques. Toutes ces préoccupations, thématiques ou structurales, qui expriment l'angoisse profonde de l'artiste devant la réalité et sa représentation picturale, se révèlent aussi dans sa peinture dans l'insertion, rare mais toujours significative, du mot.
keywords: Delvaux, word and image, verisimilitude, Belgian Surrealism
Although Paul Delvaux is among the most academic painters in the modern Belgian tradition , an important part of his work consists of subverting or deconstructing the conventions governing visual representation in the western world. Since the traditional aim of academic art is the translation into pictorial terms of a fragment of text - idea, event, action or scene - the work's title usually marks the trace of this text. This translation process generally implies a certain repression of the textual element within the pictorial. The originality of Delvaux, as a Surrealist painter, is to enable certain traces - textual or other - like dreams or fantasies underlying the painting, to break through to the surface . While re-connecting with the academic tradition, outmoded for half a century, Delvaux at the same time both subverts and enriches it by introducing into it heterogeneous elements. In the event, of all the strange objects introduced into Delvaux's paintings - railway trains, ruins, telegraph poles - none was to have an effect more subversive than that of words .
In Delvaux's paintings, the word or fragment of text invariably brings with it a feeling of the uncanny that signals the return of an obsession or a repressed memory. In pictorial terms, Delvaux's concern with the return of hidden or buried elements of human experience manifests itself in the evocation of images revealing the deeper structure either of the human body - muscles, bones (écorchés , skeletons) - or of visible reality - dismantling, excavation (mechanical or architectural structures, ruins). This deconstructive tendency, as disquieting as it is voluntary, also extends, as in the work of his contemporary René Magritte, to the very conventions of visual representation. So, Delvaux's pictures show a deep concern for perspective, for pictorial verisimilitude and the accurate presentation of details, however improbable these latter may seem, an obsession which is also apparent in the play of mirror reflections, framing and optical devices. All these preoccupations, whether thematic or structural, which express the artist's deep anxiety in the face of reality, known or unknown, and its pictorial representation, are also revealed in his painting by the insertion - rare but none the less telling for all that - of words or phrases.
In examining the words in Delvaux's paintings, this paper aims to answer the following questions: at what periods in his long creative career do they appear? What role do they play in his paintings? Finally, what is the deep and general significance of their appearance in what would otherwise be an exclusively pictorial work? Four distinct categories of words or of textual fragments can be distinguished in Delvaux's work. The following list provides some examples:
1. Titles that are reproduced within the painting
3. Newspaper Titles
4. Books and maps
It is worth noting that in all the cases cited above (except for the Eluard poem included in Delvaux no. 1.)  the painter has recourse to a minimal subterfuge of verisimilitude, that is to say that the words or fragments of text all have a plausible support in the picture (notice, signal, newspaper); except for the artist's signature, the post-Cubist practice of writing on the picture itself is nowhere in evidence in Delvaux's work.
The first of the above categories (titles), being the most conventional, seems at first sight to be the least interesting in the context of the theme of this paper: in an illustrated text, it is quite normal to highlight within the illustration the title of the text it accompanies. So, the titles of Eluard's ten poems are, for the most part, reproduced by Delvaux in the corresponding drawings. Likewise, the poem Nuits sans sourire is incorporated in a drawing of 1949 where it is superimposed on the body of one of the two nude women in the painting. More problematic however in this category are the sixteen engravings, executed in 1978-79, of drawings made 30 years before. In three out of the sixteen - 'Les Derniers Beaux Jours', 'Le Laid', 'L'Orage' - the title of the engraving is incorporated in an unexpected manner into each drawing. In each of these three cases, the 'titles' appear in huge letters and are in each case either framed within the frame of the picture or, as in the case of 'Le Laid', within a book format . Here the fragment of text operates both as a title (that is, as an indication of the image's signified ) and as an element of the image's content (that is, as a signifier), an element which becomes disturbing to the extent that it emerges from the image like the return of a heterogeneous or repressed element.
Fig. 1. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
The example of the engraving entitled 'Le Laid' (fig. 1) is especially interesting in that the word, as signified , seems to suggest an aesthetic judgement which goes against the image itself in that the latter might normally be presumed to aim to be beautiful. It may be that the ugly ('le laid') in painting is precisely the word whose presence subverts or undermines the illusion of the pictorial representation of 3-dimensional reality. It may also be that here Delvaux is underlining the fact that language has the possibility both of expressing contradiction, either within its own system (that of the logic of language) or within that of another medium, in this case that of visual representation. But this image also recalls to us the law of non-contradiction that, according to Freud, is often operative within dreams. As here, the visual image can present contradictory juxtapositions, including - or not - heterogeneous elements from other media, without being obliged to explain or resolve them. It may be significant here that the word 'Le Laid', should be printed on the leaves of an album, signaling the return to the origin of the visual image in a book , an origin that is in painting most often elided or repressed. However, at the same time, the leaves of the album are not like those of a conventional book, but present themselves rather as a decorative band (as in a room or on a panel). In this way, the image draws us into a world that is, at bottom, undecidable, where the link between word and image, far from clarifying the sense, on the contrary complicates and differs it, perhaps indefinitely.
This preoccupation with the complex relationship between word and image, picture and text, is not an altogether unconscious one for Delvaux. On the contrary, there is a whole category of pictures which, in incorporating the motif of the book or the map (as in section no. 4 above), seem to imply a conscious questioning of the relationship between different systems of representation. In L'Entrée de la ville of 1940 (fig. 2), for example, the artist on arrival in Pompei, has to orientate himself in an ancient or imaginary world by reference to a map, that is, a schematic diagram that uses both words and images. The semi-nudity of the young map-reader in the left foreground contrasts with the black suit of the clothed man walking into the painting's background. The semi-nudity of the former suggests that this character is in the process of entering into the ideal world of the past with its perfectly naked inhabitants whereas the man in the bowler hat notices nothing of this, being deeply absorbed in a newspaper, a document which relates only the events of current everyday life. To enter into the world of the image, you must take your shirt off - when Delvaux was painting, his shirt was always open and his sleeves rolled. Likewise, the map represents an intermediary stage between the text or book and the pictorial image.
Fig. 2. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
The replacement of the book before entry into the pictorial world is even more clearly dramatised in Le Récitant (1937) where a young man, stripped to the waist (another self-portrait by Delvaux) recites the text of a missing or absent book. This missing book is re-discovered however in the left hand of the principal character in another self-portrait of an artist of the same year, 1937, only in this case the artist C. Willink whose painting Le Prédicateur (in the Central Museum, Utrecht)  shows a half-naked artist reading. So Delvaux tells us, using a purely pictorial language, that the painter speaks to us using silent words . The small lectern that the picture presents to the observer/ 'reader' of the painting becomes changed into an easel containing not a book but a small canvas, a mise en abîme or reverse image of the pictorial text provided by the picture itself. The oneiric background of the painting, with its ruins in a sterile and mountainous landscape, introduces us again into the world of dream from whence the disturbing and heterogeneous objects of the foreground seem to have emerged. The text, in the form of a book, which might have explained this vision, has been as we have just shown, deleted by the painter.
Another such enigma is posed by two paintings , La Dame de Loo (1969) and L'Office du soir (1971) in which books are being read by two young naked women. In this case, the books are in all likelihood prayer-books, given the proximity of the churches and, in the second painting, of a priest playing the flute. If these are Christian books, however, why are the women naked? If they are erotic books, why the presence of the priest and churches? To sharpen the sense of transgression? These questions remain open and undecidable as a result both of the juxtaposition of signs which establish an alternating current of possible meanings within the picture, and of the suppression of the titles of the book whose blank pages stimulate the imagination of the reader of the picture as much as that of the women represented in it.
By far the most significant and interesting paintings by Delvaux in which words or fragments of text appear are those in which the text is either part of a newspaper (as in category no. 3) or on notices, drawings or signs pinned or stuck to the walls of the scene depicted in the painting (category no. 2). It is worth noticing that the vast majority of the paintings in these two groups (like those moreover in Category no. 1) date from the 1940s, the period in which Delvaux produced his best and most celebrated works. This was the decade during which the more tentative and hesitating attempts of his first surrealist paintings of the second part of the 1930s (such as Le Récitant ) lead up to the grand formulations of his first maturity, a moment when Delvaux succeeded in expressing in visual terms both his artistic vision of the world and his conception of the conventions of visual representation as developed in the western tradition.
Fig. 3. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
In L'Homme de la rue of 1940 (fig. 3), the clothed man reading the newspaper plays the same role as that already observed in L'Entrée de la ville (fig. 2): his presence as a modern man in a mythical landscape peopled by naked women introduces a disturbing element into an already oneiric scene. Only the first word of the title of the newspaper is shown - 'La' ('The'). The presence of fragments of phrase in Delvaux's paintings often leads the viewer/observer to seek word-games, puns or clichés susceptible to deepening the mystery of the image. As in a dream, or even in the language of waking life, words can refer back to obsessions or unconscious neuroses. Is this man seeking a certain tone ('chercher le la')? - his newspaper seems to be advertising female underwear. Or is he seeking a woman ('chercher la femme')? - the women who surround him in the oneiric landscape no doubt represent the women of is dreams. If the newspaper title is the same as that clearly marked in La Voix publique of 1948 (fig. 4), that is La Voix publique , ( The Public Voice ), the man seeks in reading it rather to find an opening to his private dreams and fantasies. For one notices that the pages of the newspaper that he is so carefully studying are covered with erotic images of corsets and other suggestive items of feminine apparel with, in addition, images of female nudity. Alternatively, the newspaper may only be a decoy set up to mislead the suspicions of the observer, for the man may be pretending to read the paper, awaiting the moment when he can ogle or hallucinate the female nudes that surround him. Here then, the newspaper or fragment of text take on within the painting the double role of index and of decoy that they also take on in dreams, at the same time suggesting and confusing meaning. The viewer/observer of the painting is thus in the end unable to make a definitive interpretation of it, a situation which brings with it the pleasure of making infinitely renewable suppositions.
Fig. 4. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
A similar ambivalence is evident in La Voix publique of 1948 (fig. 4) where in a room next to the large female nude in the foreground of the picture one can see a folded copy of the newspaper La Voix publique on a table. This image, juxtaposed with the disturbing one of the tram approaching down the street from the background towards the reclining woman in the foreground, invites the reader/viewer to reflect on the various possible permutations of this ambiguous phrase: the public way ('la voie publique'), the pubic way ('la voie pubienne'), to see her in public ('la voir publique'), to have her in public ('l'avoir publique'), public wash-house ('lavoir public'), etc. Each of these multiple permutations offers of course a corresponding way of reading the visible evidence offered by the painting: the woman offers herself (up) to the public street; her right hand clearly points to the pubic way that will be followed by sexual desire; the woman offers herself up to public view - 'la voir en public' - with her vestal virgins (another recurrent theme of Delvaux's painting) in attendance as if at some obscure rite of initiation or prohibition; the woman, like the picture, offers herself to the desire of the public - 'au désir du public' -, a public which in admiring her in the museum comes in a sense to have her - 'l'avoir' - that is, to possess her; the naked woman is a Venus who, as in many paintings of Delvaux and of the European academic tradition, has just emerged from bathing: the white drapery covering her right thigh is the towel she has just used to dry herself on emerging from the public baths - 'le lavoir public' - which is also perhaps a pubic bath, given the proximity of her right hand and of the towel to the clearly visible triangle of pubic hair. She is perhaps waiting for the tram no. 10 to take her home after her ablutions. In this way the title of the newspaper, by introducing into the picture a doubly heterogeneous element - the title as signifier (signifying 'text') and as signified (signifying 'voice', vocal sound) - breaks the surface of pictorial representation, introducing cracks which indicate the pressure of unconscious or subterranean forces which try to rise to the surface and to open themselves up to the gaze and to the understanding of the spectator.
Fig. 5. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
One of the many drawings of reclining nudes that comment more or less directly on Delvaux's great paintings of this period such as La Voix publique and Eloge de la Mélancolie is Nu allongé (1948, fig. 5). Here the public street and the approaching tram are both suggested and replaced by a little drawing stuck to the wall in the background which shows a naked woman descending a street whose lines recede rapidly back wards to the vanishing point. Beneath the image the word perspective followed by five exclamation marks is clearly visible . There can be no doubt here that, as in Delvaux's nude paintings throughout his career, the exaggerated presentation of perspective (a convention of pictorial representation that, as we know, dates back to the early Renaissance) heightens the erotic charge activated by the presence of the naked woman. Infallibly drawing towards itself the possessive and prurient eye of the observer, the vanishing point becomes the optical equivalent of the pubic triangle with which it is in a relation of tension, intensifying in the process its erotic charge. So, in Nu allongé , the little reminder notice provided by Delvaux tells us in our turn that the penetration which perspective offers us is both optical and sexual.
Fig. 6. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
Fig. 7. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
Other drawings of this period that speak more openly, that is, by using words, of Delvaux's pyschological and pictorial obsessions, are Magasin d'ostéologie (1949, fig. 6) and Eloge de l'astrologie (1941, fig. 7). The words highlighted in these ink drawings - 'Les Planètes', 'Géo[logie]' (Eloge de l'astrologie), 'Anatomie', 'Ostéologie' (Magasin d'ostéologie) - mark Delvaux's interest in scientific knowledge and the important basis it offers both to pictorial representation and to a certain oneiric vision of the world and of the human body. In Magasin d'ostéologie , the heightened consciousness of the artist of the anatomical and skeletal structure of the female body seems both to augment and to disturb his desire. This tension is expressed in this picture, as in many others by Delvaux, by the juxtaposition of the clothed or naked body of the woman with skeletons which take on shapes susceptible both to display their structure in a scientific manner and to mime the poses taken by the living women depicted in the scene; a very well-known example of this sort of situation is provided by the Vénus endormie of 1944 in the Tate Gallery in London. As for the drawing Eloge de l'astrologie (fig. 7), it is no doubt a study for the great painting of the same year, Le Congrès (fig. 8) which picks up the motifs of notices and messages pinned to the wall next to the group of scientists who are discussing among themselves, at the same time juxtaposing them with the magnificent female nudes. Here the scientific world of planetary astronomy or the less precise but none the less suggestive world of astrology furnish a background against which the beautiful forms of the human planets - Venus and others - exert their gravitational pull on the observer as strongly as perspective draws his or her gaze.
Fig. 8. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
Fig. 9. Paul DELVAUX Antheit, 1897-Furnes, 1994
The masterpiece that best sums up the deep significance of Delvaux's use of words in painting is no doubt L'Eloge de la Mélancolie (1948, fig. 9). Here the visual intertext indicated by the notice pinned to the wall in the background which reads 'Eloge de la mélancolie', accompanied by an abstract drawing, is Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer (1514, fig. 10) which, as in many Delvaux paintings, regroups around a central figure a complex series of objects and signs whose meaning is not always readily apparent. The role of the message written here is not only to signal this intertext but also to draw the eye of the observer towards the shadow of the phallus of the adjacent marble hero, the illusion of which is created by the electric light which projects against the wall the outline of the sword handle. Alternatively, the role of the phallus could be, in part, to indicate , like a penile finger, the notice attached to the wall; for this shadow of an erection is not only the symbol of desire but also plays an additional symbolic role: it is the Phallus which, in Lacanian terminology, represents the Law of the father, the entry into the symbolic world of language, and brings with it an increase in the tension between the latter and the imaginary world of visual representation here equated with that of the woman or mother. Once more, then, by introducing words and other heterogeneous motifs into the pictorial world of the painting, Delvaux succeeds in opening up the scene, with its many tensions, to supplementary and often incommensurable perspectives.
Fig. 10. Albrecht Dürer, Melancolia, 1514, gravure
To conclude, it is necessary first to stress that the first function of words in Delvaux's paintings is to break the even surface of conventional pictorial representation, especially painting of a conventional, academic style. Although most often the words or phrases inserted find a more or less plausible context and support (notice, newspaper title, message) and although their insertion is, in most cases, discreet, such elements nonetheless succeed in disturbing the world of visual representation, opening up perspectives onto fields of verbal or textual association and carving out openings in the otherwise closed world of the picture. Moreover, the words inserted often indicate structures underlying the visual appearance of phenomena, whether these be corporeal ('anatomie', 'ostéologie'), physical ('géo[logie]') or visual ('perspective'). Like unconscious reminders of meanings and emotions, words mime or subvert the conscious representation effected by academic painting or, alternatively, become themselves unconscious reminders of the irrational aspects of visual art. In a word, the written becomes the supplement to the painted; it is often repressed but is always necessary to the extent that the two arts, writing and painting, never succeed in fully expressing themselves without in some way supplementing each other. The fact that numerous words in Delvaux's paintings are - or could be - also the titles of the works in question is also revealing. For when, for example, in La Voix publique or Eloge de la mélancolie , the title of the work indicates, in an exemplary tautology, its textual double within the painting, the artist is telling us that painting, at bottom, can only show us what it has already said, that the visual representation of an object is only ever the reply or replica (in both senses of the word) of itself and of the word it designates. In this sense, figurative painting is, perhaps, at bottom, an art that is ineluctably verbal . Faced with this problem, the strategy - and the originality - of Delvaux seems to be to lead us into a world - real, surrealist or hallucinatory, it matters not - which seems at first to be purely pictorial, permitting us thus for a moment to bathe in the illusion of a purely visual world, only to show us afterwards that this world, at bottom, is only a decoy, that there is no such things as purely visual representation, that every signifying system is inevitably corrupted - that is, enriched - by others. This then is not the least of the lessons the words in Delvaux's paintings teach us.
Butor, Michel. Le Mots dans la peinture , Paris, Flammarion: 1969.
___________ 'Le Rêve de Paul Delvaux' in Delvaux: le catalogue de l'ouvre peint (ed. S. Houbart-Wilkin), Lausanne & Paris: Bibliothèque des Arts, 1975: 13-53.
Clair, Jean. 'Un rêve biographique' in Delvaux: le catalogue de l'ouvre peint (ed. S. Houbart-Wilkin), Lausanne & Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts: 1975, 54-129
Gianadda, Léonard. Paul Delvaux Martigny, Fondation Gianadda: 1988
Paquet, Marcel. Delvaux et l'essence de la peinture , Paris, Editions de la Différence:1982, 2 vols.
David Scott. Paul Delvaux: Surrealizing the Nude , London , Reaktion Books: 1992
Thévoz, Michel. L'Académisme et ses fantasmes. Le réalisme imaginaire de Charles Gleyre , Paris, Editions de Minuit: 1980.
Vovelle, José. ' Le Récitant de Paul Delvaux', in Beaux-Arts , 31 (1986), 58-61
 See Jean Clair in Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, 1975: 54-129; Marcel Paquet (1982); David Scott (1992: 65-79).
 See Michel Thévoz (1980)
 See Michel Butor (1969); see also the article by Butor in Houbart-Wilkin (1975: 13-53)
 The texts by Paul Eluard along with the corresponding drawings by Delvaux, are reproduced in the catalogue of the exhibition Paul Delvaux at the Fondation Gianadda (1988: 91-111). The picture/text Nuits sans sourire is reproduced in the same catalogue, no. 49 (69). For the engravings of drawings executed in 1948, see the same catalogue, nos. 91-106 (115-30)
 This connection was first established by José Vovelle in her suggestive article (1986: 58-61), in which C. Willink's painting is reproduced, p. 61.
 See Ch. VI, 'Loving Perspectives', in David Scott (1992:102-25)
David Scott holds a personal chair in French (Textual & Visual Studies) at Trinity College Dublin. His books include Pictorialist Poetics (1988), Paul Delvaux (1992), European Stamp Design: a semiotic approach (1995), and Semiologies of Travel (2004); two books, Figures de l'affiche and Boxing: Art and Aesthetics are forthcoming.
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