Monday, July 27, 2015

Beyond the Material: the Art of Jean Delville

“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on - have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear - what remains?"
 Walt Whitman 


Jean Delville was born in Louvain, Belgium in 1867. He believed art was a great mystery and that seeing art could help people endure the hardships of life. When he started painting, he depicted the downtrodden and the destitute. As his grew as an artist, he shifted to the inner life and depicted (as he saw it) the soul, love, and spiritual transcendence. Some of his works are in public museums today, but the whereabouts of many of his paintings are still unknown. He died in 1953 on his birthday.

Prague is the right place for such an exhibition. There are many artists here, like Delville, who are not up-and-coming, not emerging, not contemporary, though their art is still circulating and is still occasionally made public.

So what did this 19th century Belgian painter have to say? Is his art still relevant today?


Delville’s earliest drawings are stark black and white scenes of peasant life reminiscent of early Van Gogh. Van Gogh, dismissed as a missionary for living with the poor instead of only preaching to them, is something of a spiritual brother to Delville. Delville believed his paintings could contribute to spiritual revival in his lifetime and only the higher planes of existence were important. Among his early works (on show in this exhibition) are Delville’s paintings of the recent dead.

Delville saw the human body as a prison for the soul. He believed that only death could set the spirit free. In one of the pictures present here, an old woman lies in a bed. Light from a candle illuminates her face. The portrait is soft and tender, respectful and delicate. The sentiment is sad but peaceful. This is a moment of great value to Delville, not to be wasted or treated carelessly. At this time in his career he's starting to become more and more interested in what life beyond the body might look like.

After 1900, Delville pursues the interests he’s known for: depicting the human spirit. The symbols from this point forward in his paintings are simplified. The opposite bank of a pond, which could have been the setting for a peasant fishing is now just to be a picture of an opposite bank. Delville let's the picture transmit its own meaning. Given the spiritual context of his work at this time, it seems to represent the Other Side, the unknown and unknowable.

Other paintings from this time depict an alternate world. In one picture, mounds of translucent male and female forms writhe and slip in and out of each other’s arms. In another, embracing couples fly across the sky. These aren't people, they're spirits, they're souls enjoying freedom that comes with death. 

To Delville, death is how the spirit frees itself. The more he allowed himself to imagine what might be beyond the material world, the more he freed himself artistically. His figures and forms in this later period of his life are painted in creamy blues and greens. The light around a picture of Jesus, traditionally gold, is a peculiar yellow in his work. I wouldn't call the colors vibrant either. They're the colors of a face starved of oxygen. It's as if Delville is telling you there is more to life than you can see, that there are colors you'll only see when your soul reaches a certain altitude.

Delville's themes here are the mysteries of life, love, and spirituality. He’s attempting to depict a world we can't know using physical forms and symbols we're familiar with. After viewing all the artwork, it felt to me that Delville was trying to describe something that was impossible to describe. Though he dedicated so much of his life to spiritual revival, he never lost sight of the physical world or his place in it. On the wall of the very last room of the exhibition is the following quote by the artist:
“I regret now that I have preserved what related to my artistic career in a rather nonchalant way – yes, that’s the right word. My study of theosophy made me not attach any special significance to the external manifestations of my personality. It has brought – and still brings – light into my inner life, but it has caused me to extricate myself from immediate personal issues, and in terms of the artistic life, it has made me lonely." 
He painted with the hope of lifting others up, but regretted dedicating so much to the cause. At the end of his life, he was, at the very least, questioning the choices he made.


I grew up in a church-going family. On Sunday mornings my brother and I delivered papers then went to church with our parents. We went because going meant breakfast afterwards.

I didn't pay much attention to the church services. I thought they were slow and boring. But habits and traditions affect you in strange ways. I must have liked something about it because as a teenager I joined a church of my own.

I only went the first time because a high school friend invited me one night after soccer practice. The boys I met shook my hand and the girls hugged me. I memorized bible passages and prayed. I brought a bible to school and work. I evangelized once or twice. I don't know what I believed. I liked the friendships. I liked the girls. I stayed involved for a few years but stopped going when I traveled abroad to study in Europe.

I studied in Spain and lived with a Spanish family in an apartment block there. The Spanish students I went to school with invited me over for holidays when I had nowhere to go. They took me to night clubs and bullfights, cooked me dinner and played me music. They weren't religious people. They were just friendly when I was alone and needed friends. I was touched by their kindness.

At the university I read poetry and watched foreign movies for the first time. I studied the art history of Spain with a great teacher. His passion for art rubbed off on many of us. The artists I enjoyed the most had unique styles (El Greco, Miro, Goya). They had been given an impulse, a tendency, a spark, it seemed, and they made things that were beautiful and told a story. Their paintings were windows into humanity by way of their own imaginations. These artists were people -- the biggest lesson of all -- and I connected to their desire to make something fresh that put their creative impulses to good use.

 "Men have two very distinct trends in them. One of these two trends is physical, which must, of course, provide for his preservation by physical means, having the task of sustaining tangible life, sustaining the body. The other trend, which is not only immaterial but indefinable, is that which arises as a perpetual aspiration beyond the material, for which this world is not enough."
Jean Delville 
Artists have always been interested in what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself”. I think when you look at art you're looking at a record of a time in a person's life. Can it be more than that? Delville believed that his art wouldn't only be a historical record, but that it could help people endure hardships and prevail. Whether or not you think he succeeds in doing that depends on what you take away from the exhibition (and what you bring). But is he relevant today?

I think there will always be people for whom the glass feels half empty, who feel like life as we know it is lacking something spiritually. For some, religion helps. For others, art and culture fills a void. Delville saw a place where the two overlapped. I do too.

Art has the power to connect artist and viewer, to join spirits over shared values and ideas across space and time. In the end, isn't that what spirituality and religion try to do?

The Jean Delville retrospective is currently being shown at the Stone Bell House in Prague from May 5th, 2105 to August 30, 2015.

1 comment: