Undoubtedly one of Delvaux's finest masterpieces, La ville inquiète ('The Anxious City') is a monumental and epic depiction of a classical metropolis caught in pandemonium and seemingly edging towards destruction.
Delvaux began the painting in May 1940 on the eve of the German invasion of his native Belgium and worked on the canvas under the ensuing occupation for nearly a year. Writing later about this important work the artist commented, "I believe that it was inspired by its times, an anxious time, a time of upheaval. I simply tried to express this upheaval in my own particular way."
La ville inquiète is a dream-like vision of unrest of epic proportions. Borrowing imagery from all periods of history, the scene Delvaux depicts is that of a predominantly classical city whose inhabitants have gone berserk. As is so often the case in Delvaux's work, the artist expresses psychic unrest through the use of raw eroticism which in La ville inquiète takes on the character of a work by the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch. In addition, the artist creates a dream-like atmosphere by juxtaposing deliberately contrasting elements from the antique to the modern, from the naked to the clothed, the living to the dead. Furthermore the highly precise details and realist painting technique when applied to such shocking contradictions hightens the surreal power of the image.
In the background of the painting, in front of a deliberately unspecified classical city with its Athenian Acropolis, Mycenaean Lion Gate, Egyptian Pyramid and incongruous industrial chimney, rendered in the manner of Mantegna, a crowd of naked women are caught on the steps of the city in a state of frenzy that is highly reminiscent of Poussin's celebrated painting 'The Rape of the Sabine Women'. With the added elements of a storm tossed night and a distant volcano completing the backdrop, images of Pompeii, Babylon or Sodom and Gomorra are readily brought to mind.
As the tumultous scene extends towards the foreground the naked eroticism of the painting asserts itself. Hundreds of naked women are caught in varying degrees of psychic trauma and sexual excitement. A pair of female lovers cavort in the centre of the painting while in front of them a woman crouches in despair in the manner of Van Gogh's famous drawing 'Sorrow'. To her left another woman turns terrified recalling Masaccio's 'Eve' being expelled from the Garden of Eden, while behind her, respectable bourgeois women reveal themselves as prostitutes and walk alongside skeletons suggesting the ancient theme of 'Death and the Maiden' and also the work of another celebrated Belgian artist, James Ensor.
On the right of this panoramic scene of pandemonium, in front of a group of naked figures worshipping marble statues, a politician stands on the steps seemingly oblivious to the panic around him, making a speech, while in the immediate foreground, a group of figures more typical of Delvaux's own oeuvre tell their own story.
At the centre of this brilliantly complex composition stands a naked boy. His features somewhat resemble the young Delvaux, he appears to represent an innocent setting out on life. To the right of him two groups of figures, one male, the other female are gathered together seemingly bemused. The female group, depicted in a closely knit pyramidal structure as in Renaissance paintings and fronted by three bare breasted maidens, are described by Delvaux as forming 'a cortège' that has descended from the Acropolis to take part in this scene of universal unrest. They are confronted on the left of the painting by the naked figure of Delvaux himself crouching pensively in the pose of Rodin's 'Thinker' and gazing at them with an expression of concern and anxiety.
In the representation of this confrontation Delvaux brings the questions of the nature of eroticism and the expression of human desire , key elements of his art, to the fore. "Without eroticism I would find painting impossible", he has said. "I paint myself, the artist, recognisable or not....My male figures are also elements of a reality that is transmuted by the way i situate them....Their intrusion into my paintings, particularly alongside female figures - naked women - is partly intended to create a shock, a shock that results precisely from that very juxtaposition." (Paul Delvaux quoted in; '7 dialogues avec Paul Delvaux accompanés de 7 lettres imaginaires', J. Meuris, Le Soleil Noir, Paris 1971, p. 34).
In the centre of this dramatic confrontation between Delvaux and his personal nemesis - the erotic nature of woman - lies a skull on a barren desert-like surface. A memento mori and an archetypal symbol of the human condition the skull in this context seems to raise questions about the fundamental issues of life. Thus, in an eloquent manner Delvaux relates this allegorical portrait of an anxious period in his history to the wider questions of man's existential predicament within the universe.
Above the skull, perhaps about to trip over it, wanders a bowler-hatted man reminiscent of Magritte's bowler-hatted figure of Everyman. Oblivious to the chaotic scene around him, the appearance of this ordinary clerk strolling through the centre of this tumultuous composition filled with dramatic energy and action is wholly absurd. A figure that would later appear in many of Delvaux's canvases, his appearance here is the first in Delvaux's art.
Talking about how this clerk seemed to demand inclusion within this extraordinary painting, Delvaux told Meuris how he was based on a real-life character; "I observed him on a number of occasions. He impressed me, and when I was painting this picture his presence in it became obvious, necessary even. To be frank, he slid into the composition with no other justification than this: in the middle of that town prey to all kinds of worries, that town at its wit's end, there was this presence of an ordinary man who each day carried out the same task and took the same route. In light of the imminent collapse of the threatened city, he performed perhaps a second function that his customary mediocrity would in some respects contradict." (Ibid., p. 87)
The bizarre appearance of this ordinary clerk in the middle of this apocalyptic scene is typical of Delvaux's own peculiar brand of Surrealism. Although affiliated with the Surrealists, Delvaux was never a member of the movement, but preferred to pursue alone his own sense of the unreal and the enigmatic. For him, it was above all the work of Giorgio de Chirico that he had first witnessed at the 'Minotaur' exhibition in Brussels in 1934, that had impressed him and, as he put it, "immediatedly put me on my path". As his close friend Claude Spaak observed: "How many times must he have told me how de Chirico's figure of a little girl pushing a hoop down an empty street with nothing but the shadowy profile of a statue awoke in him secret relationships?".
Amidst the turmoil of the present painting's fresco-like expanse of chaos, the clerk and the erotic encounter that takes place between Delvaux and the cortege of women create an enigmatic aura of quiet that is evocative of the quality Delvaux admired so much in de Chirico's work: a quality which he called a "poem of silence and absence".
A truly outstanding painting that speaks not only of his own art and life but also for a whole period in his country's history, Delvaux's La ville inquiète has always been considered one of the seminal paintings of the artist's career and was even commemorated on a national postage stamp in 1970. It was first acquired in 1953 by the critic René Gaffé, a prodigious collector and the author of the book Paul Delvaux ou les reves éveillés (Delvaux or Awakening Dreams). When in 1953 Gaffé put the work up at auction, Delvaux, having regretted first parting with the painting attempted to buy it back. Hoping not to draw too much attention Delvaux sent his wife to bid for him, but by a bizarre coincidence, Madame Delvaux found herself seated right next to a woman who was also determined to buy the painting and who, eventually outbidding Mme Delvaux, secured the spectacular masterpiece for herself. Eventually the new owners became great friends of Delvaux. The painting has remained in the same family until now.
La ville inquiète
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated 'P. DELVAUX 5-41' (lower centre)
Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts, Paul Delvaux, December 1944-January 1945, no. 19.
Venise, XXVIIe Biennale, Pavillon belge, Le fantastique dans l'art, June-October 1954, no. 4.
Charleroi, Salle de la Bourse, XXXIe Salon du Cercle Royal Artistique et Littéraire de Charleroi, Hommage à Marc Chagall, Rétrospective Paul Delvaux, March-April 1957, no. 40 (illustrated).
Bordeaux, Bosch, Goya et le fantastique, May-July 1957, no. 236. Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts, Depuis Ensor, April-September 1958, no. 85.
Munich, Haus der Kunst, Hundert Jahre Belgische Kunst, November-December 1959, no. 54 (illustrated pl. 35). This exhibition later travelled to Bremen, Kunsthalle, January-February 1960.
Ostend, Musée des Beaux Arts, Paul Delvaux, July-August 1962, no. 16.
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, De generatie van 1900. Surrealisten. Animisten, February-April 1966, no. 55 (illustrated).
Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum, 6 Surrealister, March-April 1967, no. 9. This exhibition later travelled to Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts, May-June 1967.
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Rétrospective Paul Delvaux, September-October 1969, no. 21 (illustrated in colour).
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Retrospektief Paul Delvaux, April-June 1973.
78 3/4 x 97 1/4 in. (200 x 247 cm.)
R. Dupierreux, 'Paul Delvaux, peintre de rêve' in Le Soir, Brussels, 8 January 1945, p. 2.
A. Eggermont, 'Les Arts plastiques' in Le Thyrse, Brussels, 15 February 1945, p. 53.
O. Picard, in La Revue Nouvelle, Brussels-Tournai, March 1945, p. 202.
R. Gaffé, Paul Delvaux ou les Reves Eveillés, Brussels 1945, pp. 33-4 (illustrated pl. 8).
P. Fierens, 'Paul Delvaux', Cahiers d'Art, XX-XXIè années, 1945-46, Paris 1946, pp. 250-251.
C. Goemans, 'Paul Delvaux', Horizon (Review of Literature and Art), vol. XIII, no. 73, London, January 1946, p. 33.
E. Langui, 'Het schandaal Delvaux', Kroniek van Kunst en Kultuur, VIIIste jaarg., no. 2, Amsterdam 1947, p. 54.
E. Langui, 'L'appel des sirènes de Paul Delvaux' in exh. cat. Paul Delvaux. Tableaux, Dessins, Aquarelles, Verviers, Société Royale des Beaux-Arts, 1949, p. 6.
C. Spaak, Paul Delvaux, Antwerp 1948, pp. 5 & 10.
E. Langui, Paul Delvaux, Venice 1949, p. 8 (illustrated pl. VIII). E. Langui, 'L'art contemporain en belgique' in L'Oeil, Paris, April 1958, no. 40, p. 89 (illustrated).
L. Kelheim, 'Danaïdisme de Delvaux', La Critica d'Arte, année VIII, no. 3, fasc. XXIX, Florence, 1 September 1949, p. 251.
R. Grenaille, La peinture en Belgique. De Rubens aux surrealistes, Paris 1958, p. 148 & 202.
S. Houbart-Wilkin, 'Paul Delvaux, peintre surréaliste our classique de la surréalité' in Savoir et Beauté, La Louvière, March 1961, p. 2440.
S. Houbart-Wilkin, 'Paul Delvaux, peintre surréaliste our classique de la surréalité' in exh. cat. Paul Delvaux, Liège, Salle de l'Emulation, 1962, p. 5.
Anon., 'Un étudiant soviétique: les nus de Delvaux ne sont pas des photos' in Le Courier du Littora, Ostende, 24 August 1962.
L. Norin, 'Le monde magique de Paul Delvaux' in Le Pahare Dimanche, Brussels, 28 march 1965, p. 8.
P. A. De Bock, Paul Delvaux. Der Mensch. Der Maler, Hamburg 1965, p p. 42-3.
Anon., in exh. cat. Paul Delvaux, Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 1966 ('Venus endormie' no. 18).
A. Glavimans, 'Overzichtstentoonstelling te Rijsel' in De Nieuwe Gids, Brussels, 1st Janaury 1967, p. 8.
O. Demol, 'Lettre: septembre 1967' in P. Bock Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1967, p. 284.
J. Meuris, 'paul Delvaux à Ixelles' in Industrie, Brussels, November 1967, no. 11, p. 680.
P h. Roberts-Jones, From Realism to Surrealism, Brussels 1972, p.153.
P. A. De Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels 1967, pp. 108, 112, 120 & 291 (illustrated pl. 45 and pp. 102-105).
E. Langui, 'Le monde de Delvaux' in exh. cat. Rétrospective paul Delvaux, paris, Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, 1969.
M. Conil-Lacoste, 'Au Musée des Arts décoratifs, l'érotisme à blanc de Delvaux' in Le Monde, Paris 5 June 1969.
J . Peignot, 'Visite Paul Delvaux', Connaissance des Arts, no. 207, Paris, May 1969, p. 82.
A. Fermigier, 'Les femmes nues de Paul Delvaux', Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 3 June 1969, p. 50 (illustrated pp. 7 & 50).
W. Saure, 'Delvaux's metaphysische Wachsfiguren', Die Kunst und das schone Heim, no. 8, Munich, August 1969, p. VIII.
S. Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, London 1970, p.126.
J. P. Dauriac, 'Rétrospective paul Delvaux au Musée des Arts Décoratifs à Paris' in Panthéon, Munich XXVII e année, September-October 1969, p. 426.
J. Meuris, 7 dialogues avec Paul Delvaux accompagnés de 7 lettres imaginaires, Paris 1971, pp. 28, 32, 62, 108 & 128 (illustrated pp. 35, 63, 109 & 111).
R. Swyer, 'Paul Delvaux', Le Arti, no. 10, Milan, October 1971, p. 41.
Voor Allen, Gand, 6 February 1971 (illustrated).
Les Muses, t. VI, Paris, 1971, p. 1870.
P.H. Roberts-Jones, 'Domaine de Magritte, domaine de Delvaux' in exh. cat. Surréalisme, Bordeaux, 1971, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, p. 21. J.J. Leveque, 'Paul Delvaux l'énigmatique' in La Galerie, Paris, february 1972, no 113, p. 41.
J. Vovelle, Le Surrealisme en Belgique, Brussels 1972, p. 174, 188, 193, 199 & 201 (illusrated no. 208 & 234).
F. C. Legrand, Introduction in exh. cat. 'Painters of the Mind's Eye. Beglian symbolists and surrealists', New York, The New York Cultural Center; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, 1974, p. 17.
M. Butor, J. Clair and S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Brussels 1975, no. 108, pp.189-190 (illustrated pp. 32-35 & 190).
B. Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp 1985, pp. 93, 97, 101, 103, 125, 251 & 254 (illustrated pp. 90-93 & 254).
M. Rombaut, Paul Delvaux, Barcelona 1990, pp. 12, 16 & 20 (illustrated no. 42).
D. Scott, Paul Delvaux, Surrealizing the Nude, London 1992, pp. 45-48 (illustrated p. 45).
Exh. cat., Paul Delvaux 1897-1994, Brussels 1997 (illustrated p. 23).
René Gaffé, Brussels
His sale, Brussels, Galerie Nova, 1953
Acquired at the above by the parents of the present owner