The Belgian Coast has a lot more to offer than you may think. There are pleasant walking and bicycle tours. And there’s Blgian art! The second museum is the Paul Delvaux Museum in Sint-Idesbald. Not just a museum but a real centre for art!
Big, Bigger, Biggest
Although Paul Delvaux spent most of his life in Brussels, it was his explicit wish to have a museum in Sint-Idesbald. Because it was at the Belgian coast that he spent the holidays with the family since childhood. And it was also at the port of Zeebruges, that Delvaux painted his first watercolours. He loves the local area of Sint-Idesbald so much, he decides to build a house with a studio near the mill in 1951.
So, the famous Belgian artist actually never lived in the ‘residential house’ that is the museum. The former hotel restaurant ‘Het Vlierhof’ was bought in 1982. Because of the possibilities to expand, it was the perfect location for a museum. The private museum may look small, but looks can deceive. In fact, the museum extends over a surface of 1.000 square metres, and has the largest Delvaux’ collection in the world. Delvaux wanted to keep the garden, so a large part of the exhibition area is situated underground.
Paul’s father was a lawyer. At first, his parents decide to send their son to law school. But the Flemish painter Franz Courtens persuades Delvaux’ parents to change their mind. So, Paul studies architecture, but drops out early. Finally, his parents give in. Paul is allowed to enroll at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on two conditions: it has to be the discipline monumental paintings and at the age of 25 he is able to earn a living.
The young Delvaux starts from scratch. He soon realizes that nature is the artist’s best teacher. So, he begins to experiment and continues to develop his technique by painting what he sees around him in a realist-impressionist manner. ‘Dreef in het Bos’, a painting from 1921, for instance was painted in a forest near Brussels.
Trains and stations
His fascination with trains and stations already shows during his early career. They are an important constant that appear in many of his works. His love for trains and stations goes back to the days of his childhood when the family Delvaux travelled by train to visit his grandparents in Huy, in the province of Liège. The magic of travelling by train was an experience that engendered adventure, discovery and dreams, together with beautiful memories. It should therefore come as no surprise that as a child Delvaux was keen on becoming station master.
For Delvaux, painting isn’t a spontaneous process. Before he even picks up his paintbrush, he makes several preliminary sketches and drawings. And once he determined the composition, it is transferred on to panel by drawing it with pencil, to finally colour it with oil paint. Delvaux also sticks to one painting at a time, contrary to other artists who often work on three or four paintings simultaneously.
During the second half of the 1920s, expressionism is in full bloom in Belgium. Little by little Delvaux stops painting landscapes. He is uncertain, searching for his path. He simply hasn’t found his signature style yet. Delvaux’s admiration for the Belgian expressionist painters, Constant Permeke and Gustave De Smet, influenced his paintings. His works are represented at shows, but he hardly sells anything. Unhappy with the results, Delvaux destroys nearly fifty paintings from these years.
Paul Delvaux is a versatile artist. Although people are less familiar with his graphic work, it is an important part of his oeuvre.
In the 1930s but especially from 1960 onwards Delvaux experiments with print. Therefor he uses copper plates that he covers with a layer of varnish. A drawing sheet is placed on top. Once the drawing is finished, the plate is submerged in an acid bath. Now the varnish can be removed. After that, the plate is inked and the etching is printed. When Delvaux finished printing, he purposefully destroyed the plate by scratching it to keep the number of impressions finite. Towards the end of his life, Delvaux focusses on another printing process called ‘vernis mou’ or soft varnish method what looks a lot like crayon drawings.
Besides etching, he also makes lithographs, or prints of drawings on stone, in the renowned print shop of Fernand Mourlot in Paris. Delvaux also illustrates numerous novels, stories and poetry books for writer friends as Claude Spaak and Alain Robbe-Grillet.
But he also completes a series of projects such as a mural for Ostend’s Casino Kursaal, and a painting for the Brussels Metro. The oil painting on huge wooden panels of thirteen metres width evokes the old tramways of Brussels, and can still be seen in Beurs Tube station. Finally, he designs decors for theatre plays like ‘L’Auberge des Apparences’.
Found his signature style
Surrealism emerges in Belgium from the 1930s onwards. And although the artworks of Paul Delvaux came to be associated with surrealism, he didn’t really agree. Delvaux never formally affiliated with the (Belgian) Surrealists. Surrealists didn’t accept the standard norms of the time, and weren’t not afraid to shock. Paul Delvaux created a complete imaginary world with symbolic characters, objects and edifices inspired by childhood memories, but he never wanted to shock. And as Delvaux put it himself: ‘I use surrealism to paint my own dream world. I would love to make a fantastic painting, a painting in which I could live.’
Greek temples and Roman soldiers
Besides trains, trams and stations, antiquity also is very much present in his artworks. Once more, the explanation is to be found in his youth. Delvaux , who studied Latin Greek, was bored at school. One teacher, however, managed to draw his attention. The teacher of literature captivates the young boy with his stories about the Greek and the Romans. Classical architecture, and especially temples and columns, have been the source of inspiration of many works.
Homage to the woman
Women also take a prominent place. For Delvaux the woman is like a goddess. He portrays the woman with a feeling of deep respect and esteem. Naked, half naked or dressed. But that doesn’t really matter. The colour of her skin lightens up the painting. She is present from the very first oil painting ‘Young woman at the window’ from 1920 until the last uncompleted canvas ‘Calypso’ from 1986. Out of respect for the models, Delvaux never painted their faces. So, each woman looks more or less the same with big, black almond eyes, and avoiding contact with the viewer. Nevertheless, the man wasn’t completely absent either. But working with male models was something Delvaux didn’t do. So, he drew himself using a mirror. Or he painted the male characters from the stories by Jules Verne.
From the Second World War onwards Delvaux starts to include more and more skeletons in his works. For Delvaux, a frame of bones represent the essence of life. So, he brings it to life as a creature of flesh and blood. But he also represents them in biblical scenes as to emphasize the dramatic character of Christ’s life.
Not just a museum
The private museum is in the hands of the Paul Delvaux Foundation. De Foundation protects the works of the artist, ensures the further expansion of the collection and contributes to the promotion of his oeuvre. The museum currently owns well over 3.000 works in total. This is the world’s largest collection of his works. Delvaux also donated the abundant archives as well as the royalties administration to the Foundation. In fact, this is not merely a museum but a centre for art. Since, it is the only institution in the world that issues certificates of authentication from his master’s works.
Apart from the permanent collection, the museum also hosts temporary shows. This way, the visitor gets acquainted with the multifaceted artist Delvaux was. The Foundation also plans a second museum in Brussels in the near future.
The entrance fee costs 10 euros. Students and senior citizens pay 7 euros. The museum is open from 10.30 am until 17.30 pm. More information on the website of the museum.
Many thanks to Yves De Heyn for the informative and resourceful tour!