"For me Surrealism represented freedom to disobey the rationalist logic that to some extent at least had governed, up to then, the act of painting as well as relations between what I call the elements, as much in nature as in painting. This logic once transcended, these relationships appeared in a new light as much at the intellectual level as the visual, and there suddenly sprang up an awareness of quite different mental relations between objects and people. ..... It was a major revelation for me to understand that all constraints on creativity disappeared when painting finally uncovered to my eyes its deepest and thus its most essential revelatory powers. Painting could, I realised, have a meaning of its own, it confirmed in a very special way its capacity to play a major emotional role." (J. Meuris,'7 dialogues avec Paul Delvaux accompagns de lettres imaginaires', Le Soleil Noir, Paris 1971, p. 87)
Executed in 1936, Le miroir is one of Delvaux's first "Surrealist" masterpieces. Having discovered the art of de Chirico and Magritte at the Minotaur exhibition in Brussels in 1934, Delvaux "awoke" to what he called the "secret relationships" of things, and his art became infused with disquieting imagery that visually evoked a powerful sense of poetry. This unique and distinct visual poetry became the central characteristic of his painting for the rest of his career.
Although he never formally joined the Surrealist group, nor indeed wished to be associated with the dogma of the movement, Delvaux's art was undeniably touched by Surrealism's pervasive climate. As with other key works from 1936, such as the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum's Femme dans une grotte, Le miroir explodes conventional notions of reality through a surprising and inventive use of three basic elements: perspective, reflection and a cold dispassionate eroticism.
Through a deceptively simple composition that plays with many of the conventions of traditional Old Master painting, Delvaux creates a scene that is pervaded by a disquieting silence. In its mood, Le miroir recalls of works by the Old Masters such as those of the school of Fontainbleau, many of Titian's portraits of women and the landscapes of Piero della Francesca. It also reflects something of Max Ernst's love of Edwardian costume and the enigmatic use of shadows in Giorgio de Chirico's work. Le miroir is, like so many of Delvaux's finest works, a composite of many styles and influences that together create a world that is distinctly atemporal. This "out of time" quality is reinforced by the central motif of the painting, the mirror, which as Gisle Ollinger-Zinque has eloquently explained is used as a highly appropriate conceit in Delvaux's art. In Delvaux's painting, she writes, "the dream world and the natural world fuse to create the extraordinary, like the mirror that appears so often in his pictures. It reflects a double, but a double that is different from reality - disturbing and mysterious. At times one doubts whether it is a mirror at all and not, rather, an opening, a doorway to the world of the unseen? The person who is mirrored sees himself differently and that uncertain view adds to his expressive force since if the phenomenon were logical the "sense of mystery would be destroyed". The mirror has become a form of second sight, a reflection of the hidden, of the wonderful, of the unspoken. This mental image, a second view of the artist's world or a meeting place for the internal and external heightens the significance of that world and serves the artist's concept." (G. Ollinger-Zinque, 'The making of a painter poet', reproduced in exh. cat., Brussels, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Paul Delvaux 1897-1994, 1997, p. 25)
The fragility of our logical view of reality is deliberately emphasised in Le miroir by Delvaux's depiction of the crumbling ceiling and the peeling wallpaper. As the wallpaper peels away from the walls it metaphorically echoes the peeling away of layers of reality and emphasises the essentially illusory nature of all appearances. In the same way the landscape at the centre of the mirror's reflection, along with the woman's nakedness, heightens this sense of ambiguity.
As so often in Delvaux's work, at the heart of the elaborate mystery is a gentle eroticism. In the mirror the corseted woman is naked as if she were a mental apparition stripped by the viewer's own desires. In this way, Delvaux has created a visual poetry that is a highly imaginative conceit around the eternal enigma and mystery of the female, where she is simultaneously a modern day representation of both the sacred and the profane
"Naturally there is eroticism. Without eroticism I would find painting impossible. The painting of the nude in particular. A nude is erotic - even when indifferent, when glacial. What else would it be? The eroticism of my work resides in its evocation of youth and desire". (quoted in J. Meuris, ibid, p. 42 & 112)
Le miroir was formerly in the collection of Sir Roland Penrose, the British Surrealist painter, who was instrumental in promoting Surrealism as an international movement. A close friend of Picasso and Mir, he was the principal organiser of the infamous International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, the same year in which Le miroir was painted. Penrose assembled one of the finest collections of Modern and Surrealist art in private European hands, much of which now is on display in London's Tate Gallery and the Scottish Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Le miroir once hung alongside other such masterpieces of Surrealism as Celebes by Max Ernst, The Uncertainty of the Poet by de Chirico and Joan Mir's Maternit.
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated 'P. DELVAUX 9-36' (lower right)
La Haye, Esher Surrey Art Galleries, Magritte, February-March 1937, no. 3.
Anvers, Meir, Salle des ftes, L'Art contemporain, Salon 1937, April-May 1937, no. 148.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux: Peintures, Aquarelles, March 1938, no. 8.
London, The London Gallery, 1938, no. 9.
Paris, Galerie Isy Brachot, Paul Delvaux, March-April 1978, no. 1 (illustrated on the front cover).
43 3/8 x 53 5/8in. (110.3 x 136.2cm.)
The London Bulletin, London, June 1938, p. 9, no. 3.
P. A. de Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels 1967, p. 288 (illustrated pl. 22).
J. Vovelle, Le surralisme en Belgique, Brussels 1972, p. 176 (illustrated no. 209).
M. Butor, J. Clair & S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux: catalogue de l'oeuvre peint, Brussels 1975, no. 77 (illustrated p. 171).
Ex. cat., Brussels, Muses Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Ren Magritte et le surralisme en Belgique, Brussels 1982, no. 91 (illustrated in colour p. 195; not exhibited).
Sir Roland Penrose, London
Gordon Onslow-Ford, Inverness, California
Purchased by the late owner in 1978