Painting of the Week / Thomas Abbs

Painting of the Week: 32

Painting of the Week

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus, 1944, oil on canvas, 173 x 199 cm, Tate Modern (London).

Last Friday, I was uprooted to a different computer in the office due to what is technically referred to as an ‘IP conflict’ (to my quiet botheration, the problem still persists). As the final hours of the week slipped by, with productivity giving way to distractions, I started talking to my new neighbour for the day – and our social science editor – David Stonestreet.

Once a boxer, and with a degree in Physics (two facts that are completely unrelated to what I’m about to share), David told me of how when he was working for Routledge back in the 1980s, his boss was slightly vexed by his choice of front cover for the book Hypnagogia: Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep by Andreas Mavromatis.

Aside from being somewhat overlooked in art history, Delvaux was famous for his languid and nightmarish images, often featuring somnambulant female nudes, like Sleeping Venus, seemingly lost in dreams. In defence of David, in what may seem a slightly racy number for a book cover, I think it is as good a visual representation of hypnagogia (the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep) you’ll find (on our blog anyway).

Living in Brussels during World War II, Delvaux remained disengaged from all conflict – and refused to show any of his paintings during the city’s German occupation. Of Sleeping Venus, painted during occupation, Delvaux explained ‘The psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish… I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus.’ Excessive drama, concealed elegantly beneath a sheet of stillness – this seems to sum up Delvaux’s work.

Interestingly, a formative influence on Delvaux as a younger man was the curious Spitzer Museum in Brussels, a travelling wax museum that contained among other notable odditities and beauties a Sleeping Venus. Reclining inside a glass chamber, the wax figure was connected to a device that made her appear to breathe. Like it or loathe it, the unreachable woman fascinated Delvaux throughout his life and work. For more on this, I recommend you check out Bioephemera’s article ‘Invading Hands and Sleeping Beauties’.

For now, I hope you’re having a great weekend. See you on Monday. ■ TA

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