(Please observe the Copyright on this text and relevant images) (For permission to use material from this blog, please contact the author below)
A fascinating photograph was recently brought to light by Miriam Delville, the granddaughter of the artist Jean Delville, depicting a section of an exhibition held in Belgium around the mid-20th century. The main interest of the image is the representation of several of Delville’s late key-works. The photograph is an important document because it depicts paintings by Delville that have been long out of public view; all but one are in private collections, and have not been exhibited publicly after the painters death in 1953. It also reveals the arrangement of his works in a notable exhibition, which highlights connections in terms of their shared symbolism and iconography.
Works by Delville displayed in the photograph (in sequence: Click to view full image) Left, L'Ascension Humaine (c. 1942-3, photograph © The Delvile Estate). Original: oil on canvas, 350 x 225 cm. Private collection Centre above: Régénération (c.1943), oil on canvas, 70 x 51. Private collection Centre below: Les Fruits de nos entrailles (1918), oil on canvas, 99 x 81. Private collection Right: La Roue du Monde (1940), oil on canvas, 298 x 231 cm. Antwerp: Museum of Fine Art.
The photograph lacks clear detail, but one can, nonetheless, identify most of Delville’s works recorded there. Most well-known is the large painting to the right, ‘la Roue du Monde’ which he painted in 1940 and is one amongst his last, significant large-scale narrative paintings that he created before giving up the brush in 1947. This important painting is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp.
Delville was a Theosophist, and this painting is an important testament of his long-held belief in the notion of Reincarnation and Karma. The wheel of life depicted here is the wheel of Karma and the cycles of birth, death and rebirth around which every human soul revolves in a repetitive rhythm through the cycle of life, suffering and death that is part of the constant evolution towards spiritual perfection. At the bottom of the wheel are represented various figures depicting the states of suffering in their worldly incarnation; undergoing the lowly human experiences of lust, murder and crime. But as one ascends the wheel other, more edifying experiences of the human condition are depicted such maternity and birth, love that is tender and true, as well as the development through the stages of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood), and so forth. The figures at the top of the wheel are beginning to trail off into the empyrean beyond where they prepare for successive incarnations. Surrounding the wheel above and behind are figures of light – souls in the realm beyond death that have evolved spiritually or who are preparing to enter the cycle of incarnation in the material realm once again. The huge robed figure in the foreground, representing a type of ‘Lord of Karma’ stands impassively, contemplating mortality in the form of a human scull while he slowly turns the wheel of fate with his finger. The painting was finished twelve years before Delville’s death when the artist was 74 years old. It is a late meditation on the purpose and meaning of life, the cause and effect of our actions during our earthly incarnation, but it also reflects an optimism regarding the nature of existence in the afterlife through the depiction of the etheric and mysterious beauty of the metaphysical dimension beyond the gross and heavy materialism of the earthly world represented by the figures in the foreground. In his memoir written in 1944, Delville records that he started making sketches for the work in 1939 that was exhibited the following year at the Palais de Beaux-arts. Delville considered this to be one of his best works and he describes his main concept of the work in the following:
“La Roue, symbole du monde, tourne. C’est la Roue des renaissances et des recommencements. Dans le cours éternel des choses, les vies humaines sont comme enchaînée. C’est la Roue de l’enchaînement. Echapper à cet enchaînement des cycles des renaissances, tel est le but à atteindre. C’est la Roue qui sans cesse tourne en faisant de la vie et de la mort…”(p. 16).
(The Wheel, symbol of the world, turns. It is the Wheel of rebirths and new beginnings. Within the eternal course of things, all human life is enchained. It is the Wheel of enchainment. To escape from the enchainment of the cycle of rebirths, that is the goal to attain. It is the Wheel that ceaselessly turns, creating life and death)
Delville expressed his belief in Karma in an earlier poem titled ‘Le Grand Karma’, which was published in his 1922 Anthology, ‘Les Splendeurs Méconnues’ where the effect of war, crime and hatred are accumulated in the debt of Karma which governs the condition of human life during its earthly incarnation:
|LE GRAND KARMA
Depuis que le soleil paraît chaque matin,
Il entasse depuis crime; douleur et haine.
De siècle en siècle, ainsi, s’est amassé le mal
La masse en est si lourde et terrible, et si sombre,
Quelquefois, cependant, un peu de ce Karma,
La guerre qui s’abat féroce, expiatrice,
ils sont la dette énorme du lointain passé,
O divine leçon ! O justice immanente !
C’est la Loi : toute erreur se transforme en douleur,
Ainsi, depuis les temps les plus obscurs du monde,
Et c’est pourquoi toujours les crimes répétés
Ever since the sun appeared each morning,
Since he accumulates, crime, pain and hatred.
From century to century, thus, evil accumulates
The mass is so heavy and terrible, and so dark from it,
Sometimes, however, a little of this Karma,
The war that strikes us, ferocious, expiatory,
they are the enormous debts of the distant past,
O divine lesson! O immanent justice!
That is the Law: all sin is converted to pain,
Thus, from the world’s darkest times,
And that is why crimes that are always repeated
Delville’s original conception of the work was of a much grander scale. He wanted to execute a work that was conceived as ‘ une immense fresque de 8 mètres sur 6’ (a vast fresco of 8 by 6 metres). However, at the time he was living in Mons and was constrained by the small size of his studio there, which forced him to reduce the scale of the work by half. The final work was three metres high and over two metres wide.
Delville often referred to his large-scale paintings as ‘une fresque’. Although the idea of fresco painting was really defined according to the use of the challenging technique mastered during the Renaissance, which he greatly admired, consisting of painting wet pigment into wet plaster, Delville’s use of oils is anything but fresco painting. However, what he is implying here is the emulation of the scale, style, look and feel of fresco painting typically seen in the works of Raphael and Michaelangelo. The technique does not allow highly detailed finishes and the chemical reaction between pigments and wet plaster often resulted in a necessary reduced palette of colours. The surface of fresco is not glossy, as is possible in oil painting, but mostly matte, having a dry, almost chalky appearance. It is mainly these characteristics that are evident in Delville’s monumental oils. These works are characterised by a general simplification in the articulation of form with motifs and subjects that are boldly linear executed in a reduced or limited palette that result in elegant colour harmonies. The result is that one’s attention is not distracted by extraneous detail and is sharply focused instead on the thematic content of the work. This style of painting is exemplified in the masterful works of Puvis de Chavanne (1824-1898) who Delville greatly admired. These stylistic features are shared with classical Renaissance frescoes and were widely emulated amongst the Classical non-realist revivalists of Delville’s generation (Maurice Denis is an excellent case in point) and are clearly evident in his early masterpiece in this style his l’Ecole de Platon (exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1898, next to the work of Puvis), and, of course, his La Roue du Monde.
Delville was always keen to have his major works displayed In public museums for the edification of all, and which were, in any case, far too large for the most part to be practicable for private collections. He provides a valuable memoir of how the work was finally acquired by the Fine Art museum in Antwerp:
“Comme toujours prévoyant qu’elle resterait roulée après son exposition, j’en fis don à l’Etat pour le musée d’Anvers. Le directeur des Beaux-Arts m’écrivit qu’il avait vu la toile au palais des B-A disant qu’il serait heureux de voir figurer « avec honneur au Musée d’Anvers, cette conception grandiose. » Après guerre, elle sera donc placée là, trop heureux de savoir qu’au moins elle ne pourrira pas dans un dépôt quelconque, car c’est ce sort qui attend la grande toile en Belgique !” (p.16)
(As ever, expecting that it would remain rolled up after its exhibition, I donated it to the state for the Museum in Antwerp. The Director of Fine Arts wrote to me that he saw the canvas at the Palais de Beaux-Arts that he would be happy to see featured ‘with honour in the Museum at Antwerp, this great conception’. After the War, it would be placed there, very happy to know that at least it would not rot in some or other storeroom, which is the fate of great Belgian paintings.)
An interesting feature of this work is that it includes ‘quotations’ from some of his other paintings. In other words, he incorporates motifs and compositional details from earlier works as a way, perhaps, to refer to their symbolism in order to add to the overall narrative scheme of the later painting. This is evident, most especially, in two details. The first is the arrangement of the the mother and child tucked beneath the spoke of the wheel to the bottom left of the axel. The mother presses her face close to her infant who clasps her around the shoulder. This exact arrangement is seen in an earlier work titled ‘Les Fruits de no entrailles’ which Delville painted around 1918 referring to the loss of innumerable men (i.e. the ‘fruits’ of their mothers’ wombs) in the Great War and is a poignant meditation on the senseless loss of innocent life as a result of war. Significantly, this work was also exhibited in the exhibition recoded in the photograph and discussed further below.
Left: Detail of La Roue du Monde. Right: Les Fruits de nos Entrailles.
The second notable ‘self-quotation’ can be seen at the ‘ten-‘o-clock’ position on the wheel representing two lovers with their heads close together, the woman snuggled in the neck of the male figure. This is a direct quotation, especially of the female figure, from his 1933 triptych titled ‘Le reve de l’amour’ representing two lovers floating in an etheric atmosphere within a cosmic setting not to disimilar in conception form his earlier L’Amour des ames’ (1900). In this instance, the work alludes to the notion of ideal love and the spiritual dimension underlying the attraction between lovers. By deliberately including these works in La Roue, Delville alludes to their themes as being fundamental to the Karmic cycle which he depicts here. Thus, Spiritual love is considered a higher experience on the Human Wheel than carnal love – represented further below the wheel by the two lovers in an erotic embrace, or the representation of several other male-and-female figures embracing each other in this work. This self-quoting device is seen in some of Delville’s other late paintings where he cross-references his own work for visual and intellectual effect, adding to a layered texture of meaning in his art.
Left: Detail of La Roue du Monde (rotated). Right Central panel of Le Rêve de l'Amour (click for full image)
Two lesser-known works are seen in the centre of the photograph. In the centre above is an obscure work, based on a well-known study titled ‘Régénération’ (1943) depicting a Satanic figure clutching the Globe situated above another Christ-like figure in the foreground with arms outstretched.
(Click on gallery to view full image)
The five-pointed star behind the nude Christ figure suggests that he is a representation of a ‘lightbearer’ in Delville’s mythology; a notion derived from Theosophy referring to enlightened beings who bring spiritual wisdom to humanity and who aid our spiritual evolution upon this planet and beyond. The startling dichotomy between this figure and the malevolent being who grasps, and by implication is in control of our planet, is stark. However the message of the work is optimistic in so far as it suggests that the light bearer, representing the forces of spiritual enlightenment, of renewal and spiritual rebirth appears at a time of the Earth’s darkest hour to redeem and rescue mankind from eternal darkness. In other words, he represents redemption and hope. This is another key theme that Delville derives from the Theosophical tradition. The darkness depicted here is ego-driven materialism, in all its forms including untempered Capitalism, consumerism, commodity culture, the exploitation of the natural world for profit and the careless subjugation of humanity for the sake of material gain. These are themes that the artist pursued in his poetry as well. Perhaps Delville foresaw the direction the world was taking, and its future course towards material destruction that is everywhere present on our planet today. Below this painting is another smaller work depicting a woman cradling an infant in her arms, and set in a battlefield strewn with corpses, while in the background a city burns amongst turbulent clouds of smoke and incendiary flames. The surrounding scene is one of total carnage, death and destruction. This painting is commonly titled ‘les Fruits de nos Entrailles’ (‘The Fruits of our wombs’, also referred to as ‘Mater Dolorosa‘, 1918, oil on canvas, 99 x 81 cm. Private collection).
This work is one of several protest works that Delville created, railing against the War, while he was exiled in London during WWI, and after. The loss of sons, from the perspective of their mothers implicit in this work, is a theme he returned to more cogently in his ‘Les Mères’ the following year (Les Mères, 1919, oil on canvas, 112 x 144 cm. Dinant: City collection, inv. 203) which depicts a group of shrouded and dignified women mourning the loss of their sons whose shredded, bloodied bodies are scattered everywhere about their feet.
Delville returned to these themes constantly in his poetry written at that time. However, he avoids a crude patriotic message in these works, or any vapid sentimentality, by simply focusing on the essential and undeniable waste of life that ensues from questionable motives that lead to War. As discussed above, Delville used the exact depiction and composition of this intimate depiction of a mother and child, depicted in Les Fruits, in his later masterpiece, La Roue du Monde where he places this maternal tableau diagonally bottom left of the axle of the wheel in that painting. The placement of this small work next to La Roue in the exhibition depicted in the photograph is probably not coincidental in this regard.
The theme of maternity and motherhood is a key motif in Delville’s art and poetry throughout his career. This painting was probably created around the time he wrote one of several poems highlighting the senseless waste and destruction of the Great War published in his third poetry anthology Les Splendeurs Méconnues (1922) whose theme is clearly implicit in one of his poems from this anthology, titled Mater Dolorosa:
Les femmes seulement, dans leur grand cœur de mères,
tout rempli d’un amour sublime et instinctif,
savent l’horreur immense et sanglante des guerres,
quand le glaive des Rois perce leur sein plaintif.
Du fond des temps obscurs, dès l’âge primitif,
depuis que l’on se bat pour des vaines chimères,
on les entend jeter au ciel inattentif,
tous leurs cris de révolte et leurs plaintes amères.
Mais Dieu, dans l’hymne noir des humaines douleurs,
n’entend-t-il pas leurs voix, leurs rages, leurs clameurs,
qui sont comme l’écho funèbre des batailles?
Où donc vont leurs sanglots qui se perdent dans l’air,
et que fait-il du fruit béni de leurs entrailles,
tout le sang de leur sang et la chair de leur chair?
(Only women, in their great maternal hearts filled entirely with sublime and instinctive love, know the immense and bloody horror of wars, when the sword of kings pierces their plaintive breast. From the depths of darkened times, from the primitive age, since they fought one another for pointless illusions, they were heard exclaiming to the inattentive sky all their cries of revolt and their bitter complaints. But God, in the black hymn of human sorrows, does He not hear their voices, their fury, their clamours, that are like the funereal echoes of every battle. Where then do their sobs go that are lost in the air, and what do they do with the fruits of their wombs, all the blood of their blood and the flesh of their flesh?)
The final work which can be clearly identified in this recently-revealed photograph as one by Delville is the large painting depicted on the left of the image. This is a little-known work that has not been seen in the public sphere for a long time and carries very little documentation concerning its content or details of its creation. Miriam Delville, who maintains the Delville Estate and Archives, has identified the work as a late creation titled ‘l’Ascension humaine’ (The Ascension of Man, c. 1942).
The details of the work are indistinct in the photograph, but a portion of the work exists in a black and white photograph in the Delville Archives, which allows us to understand more of its content and message. The main focus of the painting is another serene Christ-like figure cradling a light in his hands held in front of his chest that illuminates his torso and face. Below this figure is a mass of nude men and women ascending a steep, rocky incline rising upwards toward the right. The ascent undertaken by these figures is steep as well as being arduous and difficult – as is indicated in the gestures and poses of the various nude men and women. This motif represents the spiritual ascent of humanity, from the lowly impulses and desires of human nature towards spiritual enlightenment. This is a path not to be undertaken lightly, but is overseen, nonetheless, by spiritual guides.
Sharper details of this work are recorded in a portion to the left of a photograph taken of Delville in his latter years where he is seen posing in front of another important late work ‘Le Secret de la Tombe’ (1931). The photograph gives a clear indication of the scale of L’Ascension humaine.
His l’Ascension humaine reprises the theme from La Roue du Monde, but from the opposite, more optimistic and less deterministic, perspective in that it emphasises the guidance of great Masters, or Great Initiates – lightbearers in other words – who are responsible for the spiritual evolution of mankind. In that sense this work is also connected thematically to his earlier Régénération discussed above.
The representation of an Initiate in this painting is based on a study often titled Le Porteur de la Lumière, but Delville modified the conventionally bearded Christ-like features of that work to depict a more youthful, androgynous type which was common to his works on the theme of initiates of the 1890s, notably his La Morte d’Orphée (1893) and l’Ecole de Platon (1898). What is noteworthy in his Porteur de la Lumière (reproduced below) is that the blazing halo depicted behind the figure is in the form of the five-pointed star, which he placed – more vividly – behind the head of the figure in the final version. The star is an important leitmotif in Delville’s later paintings inspired by his conversion to Theosophy and his avid Messianic belief in the immanent coming of a World Teacher.
This theme of the immanence of a messianic saviour is vividly articulated in the final half of his long poem cited above, Le Grand Karma, which ends on an optimistic note of redemption through the appearance of messianic figures who redeem humanity’s Karmic debt through love:
|Mais malgré tout le poids de la sombre substance,
où s’est accumulé le sort noir des humains,
des Anges pleins d’Amour, de leurs divines mains,
retiennent doucement la terrible puissance.O visages de Dieu brillant dans les éthers,
rosée ardente où luit le rêve des aurores,
astres de pureté, mystiques météores,
Vous êtes l’Espérance au cœur de l’univers !
Vous êtes des parfums de douceur et de grâce,
Vous êtes les Seigneurs, les Sauveurs, les Veilleurs,
O Vous, soyez bénis ! Dans ces vers où je chante
Mais parfois l’Un de vous, en suprême passant,
Il vient. Elle est Sa chair. Elle est aussi Son verbe,
et qu’il serre ardemment sur son sublime Cœur,
Vyasa, le Bouddha, ces lumières d’Asie,
C’était pour se donner aux fouies sans espoirs,
tous les efforts brisés, toutes les lassitudes
Eux seuls, par leur Amour, plus divin et plus fort
Et c’est encor l’Un d’Eux qui bientôt va paraître
Et c’est lui l’Attendu, l’Elu depuis longtemps,
Car c’est déjà depuis plus de deux mille années,
Et maintenant les jours mauvais sont révolus.
|But despite all the weight of the dark substance,
where the dark destiny of humans accumulated,
Angels full of Love, from their divine hands,
gently hold back the terrible power.O faces of God shining in the ethers,
fervent pink where the dream of dawns shine,
stars of purity, mystical meteors,
You are the Hope in the heart of the universe!
You are the scents of gentleness and grace,
You are the Lords, the Saviours, the Watchmen,
O Thou, be blessed! In these verses where I sing
But at times, One of you, as the last passerby,
He comes. She is His flesh. She is also His word,
and that he fervently grips upon his sublime Heart,
Vyasa, the Buddha, the lights form Asia,
To give to the crowds without hope,
all the broken efforts, every weariness
They alone, by their Love, more divine and stronger
And it is again One of Them who will soon appear
And it is he, the Long-Awaited one, for a long time the Chosen-one,
Since it is already more than two thousand years,
And now the bad days are passed.
It is significant that all the works depicted in the photograph of this exhibition are connected thematically or visually. Their iconography and thematic content – that deal with all the evil that humanity perpetuates on this planet (towards each other and the world we live in) and our redemption through the intervention of figures that bring the message of spiritual love amongst humanity – overlap. This suggests that these works were selected deliberately in the way they are connected according to this theme – amongst all his other works created at that time. These paintings represent the artist’s main thematic preoccupations during the latter half of his career which are grounded in his Theosophical beliefs and particularly those concerning the spiritual evolution of mankind, the fate of Karma, the cycles of life through successive incarnations and the deliverance of humanity by Great Initiates, or light bearers, in other words messianic figures that serve as catalysts, through love, for the spiritual evolution of humanity. Delville adhered closely to these ideals throughout his life, and his art as a whole represents an important testament to his life-long optimistic belief in the spiritual potential of all of humanity.
My thanks to Mme Miriam Delville for kind permission to reproduce images by Delville and material housed in the Delville Archives.