Delvaux's spectacular Nus à la statue is among the most sensuous compositions of his oeuvre and an alluring example of Surrealist art. Although Delvaux's paintings are renowned for their hallucinatory imagery, the artist claimed not to be a proponent of the writings of Sigmund Freud and did not invest his compositions with the blatantly psychoanalytic references favored by Dalí, Miró and his fellow Belgian, René Magritte. Delvaux's approach to painting was more subtle in its representation of the uncanny: without being overtly grotesque or offensive with his imagery, he would interrupt the peacefulness and banality of a given scene with instances of the bizarre. Many of these pictures present a modern architectural setting, like a railway station, loggia or a street corner, that is populated by expressionless and oddly lifeless women, usually depicted in the nude. The passivity of these women recalls the gentle beauty of a Botticelli or the flawlessness of a Bouguereau and adds a certain sense of timelessness to the composition.
Given the Classical architectural details with doric columns and statue in the background that closely resembles the Equestrian monument to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the scene evokes ancient Rome. But the figures' nudity, accentuated by the intense realism of the reclining woman's genitalia, takes this otherwise neo-Classical picture into enigmatic territory that can only be achieved by a master Surrealist. Like the ominous street scenes of de Chirico, the rigidity of the architecture and dramatic shadowing create a palpably enigmatic sensation.
Delvaux was always fascinated with the effects of light and shadow in his pictures, and his mastery at manipulating color to this end is demonstrated quite beautifully in this work. As the glow of the setting sun casts a golden light over the horizon, the figures cast imposing shadows. The scene as a whole takes on an unsettling incandescence, and the viewer is thus left to consider the oddities of this 'twilight zone.' Discussing Delvaux's fascination with light in his paintings, Barbara Emerson has written, "Delvaux uses light to great effect, almost as if he were manipulating theatrical equipment of spots and dimmers. With consummate skill, he contrasts cool white shafts of moonlight with the warm, gentle glow from an oil lamp" (Barbara Emerson, Delvaux, Paris and Antwerp, 1985, p. 174).
As with most of his paintings, the meaning behind this scene is mysterious, and several hypotheses can be made about the relationship between the two women. But throughout his lifetime, the artist was resistant to provide any sort of narrative for these pictures, stating quite clearly, "I do not feel the need to give a temporal explanation of what I do, neither do I feel the need to account for my human subjects who exist only for the purpose of my painting. These figures recount no history: they are. Further, they express nothing in themselves..." (quoted in Paul Delvaux, 1897-1984 (exhibition catalogue), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels, 1997, p. 22).
Oil on masonite
Brussels, U.L.B., Congrès international d'électromyographie, 1971
48 by 72 in. 122 by 183 cm
G. Zwang, Le Sexe de la femme, Paris, 1967, illustrated p. 396
Apollo, London, 1974, no. 148, illustrated p. 165
Michel Butor, Jean Clair & Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Catalogue de l'oeuvre peint, Lausanne & Paris, 1975, no. 172, illustrated p. 218
Private Collection, New York
Jean Krebs, Brussels (by 1975)
Acquired by the present owner in 2004