On the slight elevation of Saint-Idesbald, the Delvaux Foundation is set amidst a residential area, in the so-called Vlierhof locality, which literally translates as the elder garden. Difficult to get there without a car, although this remains a feasible challenge if you really feel up for it and have knees of steel. From the outside, the Vlierhof does not look like your typical museum. No wonder: this is one of the first fisherman’s houses built in Saint-Idesbald. The pearly white façade further enhances the cozy appearance of the place. Delvaux has always had a special relationship with this village and the Belgian coastline as a whole. He was fascinated by the light found on the coast, with a particular quality that would change with the seasons. At the entrance to the Delvaux Museum, a message written by Paul greets visitors, wishing them to “find some of the joy that (he) himself has felt while painting.”
In the twilight of his life, Paul Delvaux asks his nephew, Charles Van Deun, if he can become his art dealer. Rather than engage in any business relationship with his uncle and guardian, Charles offers to promote and safeguard Delvaux’s oeuvre. The Paul Delvaux foundation is thus established in 1979. Even though Brussels is first mentioned, the town of Koksijde also indicates it would welcome such a museum. However, negotiations quickly turn into a complicated farce, with a plot that thickens with every new endless municipal council meeting.
A family affair
Time is of the essence. Delvaux is not getting any younger after all. Exasperated, Charles Van Deun thanks the city and decides to build the museum using the Foundation’s own capital. It opens in 1982 at the Vlierhof location. All the available wall space is used to exhibit as many works as possible. Meanwhile, Delvaux regularly travels from his home in Furnes to visit the place; according to him, it is the sun of his old age. Between two autograph signing sessions, he likes to eavesdrop on people as they comment on his works. Delvaux draws a lot, almost compulsively; he donates many personal objects, sketches and drawings to the Foundation.
Given Delvaux’s prolific creative output and the cramped conditions, the museum expands in 1983 with the addition of two side rooms. But it is still not enough. While visiting the Gianadda foundation Charles Van Deun has the idea to expand the museum into the basement area in order to maintain the property’s pastoral setting. The first basement room is completed in 1988, and expanded one decade later, to mark the centenary of the painter’s birth. In total, the surface area of the buildings housing the collection exceeds 1,000 m², making the site the world’s largest museum devoted exclusively to the Belgian artist.
The Foundation is responsible for managing a huge and especially extremely comprehensive collection (over 3,000 works), showing the different techniques used by the artist, from his initial studies to the experiments he carries out at the end of his life, as well as the many preliminary sketches pertaining to his creative process. Writings, drawings on beer mats, etc.: Paul jots down his ideas on anything at hand. He has no children to whom he can bequeath his oeuvre but he is keen to safeguard it, so he decides to make the Foundation his sole heir by giving it many of his works and private documents.
In the mysteries of myth
This legacy undoubtedly is what makes the museum a unique place, allowing visitors to gain insight into Delvaux’s creative inner world. It reveals the multiple influences that have impacted his work, from Montald to Grard, as well as Alfred Bastien, Ensor and others. However, the recurrent themes in Paul Delvaux’s oeuvre stem mainly from his childhood experiences. The informed public won’t be surprised to discover that, as a young man, he was fascinated by locomotives, so much so that he requested the army’s special permission to be able to set up his easel for a few hours in the Leopold district in order to capture the steam engines as they entered the station. Many paintings directly echo scenes from his childhood, as the artist managed to combine precision and talent to transform his transient memories into shrewd sketches.
The painter’s private life is also influenced by the times in which he lives: a thwarted love affair, an arranged marriage that ends up not suiting anyone; all these ingredients combine to turn his love life into a unique experience. Ultimately, it is obvious that Paul only has had eyes for his Tam, the kind Anne Marie de Martelaer. We discover the beginnings of their relationship in sketches, which at the time were like snapshots. This drawing representing an afternoon dance at Tam’s for example. In his sketches, Paul includes the comments made by the mother of his paramour: “Please, do not break the piano”, “Don’t damage the carpet” … It is tempting to share briefly the delayed jokes drawn by Paul to relive these carefree moments in their company.
As you go from room to room, Delvaux’s artistic maturation becomes more obvious. You start seeing the large almond eyes; the silence as depicted by Delvaux emerges and evolves… Throughout his existence, Paul creates many preparatory studies for his paintings. A huge amount of drawings have been found on loose sheets, with scathing comments annotated by the artist: “Vile!”, “Rubbish!”, “Drab”. A perfectionist at heart, he spends much of his time on the drawing process itself and often has second thoughts once his paintings are completed, not hesitating to remove whole sections of his works to restructure their composition. According to him, what counts is not whether one has failed at something, but rather to know what one is going to do with one’s failure.
Towards the end of his life, Delvaux becomes partially blind. Instead of being devastated, as would be expected, the artist takes it in his stride: “I can’t see my paintings very well any more. But there are so many other things in life. A good glass of wine, for example. You don’t need to see well for that.” Now unable to handle the technique, he takes large sheets of paper and creates drawings from memory. His works become abstract, symbolic; this is yet another creative stage for him. When comparing these works with those produced by the young Delvaux in 1920, you begin to perceive a cyclical pattern. Once again, the technique is naive, while colours are accessory: he’s come full circle; it’s inescapable. Tam’s death heralds the end of this astonishing swan song. Without his muse, Paul has no reason to maintain his front as a painter. His retirement does not mean the man stops drawing, though. Paul dies peacefully in his home in Furnes, on 21 December 1994.
Since the death of Charles Van Deun in 2012, his daughter Julie takes care of most of the Foundation’s management. She has stayed the course followed by her father, while adding a modern touch to the preservation of this legacy. In this respect, the year 2015 is undoubtedly a milestone for the Foundation. From now on, and to ensure the many works of the collection will get to be exhibited, there will be a new temporary exhibition every year. Paul Delvaux Best Wishes kicks off this series of exhibitions, unveiling a selection of greetings cards sent by the artist between 1955 and 1961. Despite being an atheist, the painter used to produce five to six pen and Indian ink drawings each year, on tracing paper to enable easier reproduction. All season’s greetings subjects are covered: from the Nativity to the Adoration of the Magi and the Evening Star. Delvaux’s hallmark style is quite obvious in them; in fact, many cards also refer to his work at the time. Unknown to the general public, these greeting cards are an opportunity to penetrate even deeper into the painter’s artistic inner world.
By offering quality academic books intended for a knowledgeable readership, the Foundation Delvaux publications are also a way to extend the dissemination efforts. With the passing of time, the family censorship supported by privacy laws no longer applies to Delvaux’s private correspondence, which is now available to academic research. The next books published by the Foundation should benefit from those carefully safeguarded gems.
However, the biggest project of the new millennium is the digitalization of the painter’s vast catalogue, with the launch of the Paul Delvaux Database. The Foundation’s future website will have a unique tool, giving visitors access to the oeuvre of Delvaux in a few clicks. But that’s not all: like Magritte, his world-famous contemporary, Delvaux will soon have a dedicated museum in Brussels. Brussels’ reach on the global scene should further enhance the painter’s visibility and attract new audiences to the Saint-Idesbald museum. Wherever he may be, Paul must surely be astonished at the magnitude of his fame, he who initially thought that “All this will (would) not interest anybody…” Regardless of all these new initiatives, this visit ultimately confirms a precept that has been proven true time and time again, that in art, as elsewhere, sincerity remains a tremendous added value.
Paul Delvaux, Best Wishes
Paul Delvaux Museum
Paul Delvauxlaan, 8670 Saint-Idesbald
Until 3 January 2016
Tuesdays – Saturdays from 1 October onwards, from 10:30 to 17:30