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Les phases de la lune III

Les phases de la lune III

Paul Delvaux (in 1942)

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Two educated men are standing on a square between two scientific institutes: left, a planetarium and right an observatory. The scene is lit by moonlight and breaths a cold atmosphere. The men and women walk up and down the steep stairway to the planetarium like marionettes. The barren landscape, with discarded heavy machinery, contributes to the atmosphere. The educated men are viewed by Paul Delvaux, who portrayed himself on the right as a passer-by.

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Title Les phases de la lune III
Material and technique Oil on canvas
Object type
Painting > Painting > Two-dimensional object > Art object
Location This object is in storage
Dimensions Height 155 cm
Width 175 cm
Artists Kunstenaar: Paul Delvaux
Accession number St 132
Credits Bruikleen / Loan: Stichting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 1973
Department Modern Art
Acquisition date 1973
Age artist About 45 years old
Exhibitions Collectie - surrealisme (2017)
The Collection Enriched (2011)
De collectie als tijdmachine (2017)
External exhibitions De Melancholieke Metropool: stadsbeelden tussen magie en realisme, 1925-1950 (2013)
Dal nulla al sogno (2018)
Geographical origin Belgium > Western Europe > Europe

Author: Marijke Peyser

The Exposition Minotaure group exhibition was staged in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in the spring of 1934. Prominent Surrealists, including Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy, were represented with works there.[1] Paul Delvaux visited the exhibition and was moved by De Chirico’s paintings: ‘De Chirico’s deserted towns, his silent figures made an impression on me because I felt that all this satisfied something within me… that everything is poetry, it is a totally poetic programme’.[2] In Delvaux’s works after 1934 women, alone or in a group, naked or veiled in classical clothing, are the main motif. They are silent, sometimes they look at one another, almost always they seem to be in a trance. They are located in an alienating setting, often a deserted urban landscape. The dream-like beings have blonde hair, huge dark eyes, big breasts and black pubic hair. Sometimes they are accompanied by clothed or naked men or a skeleton.

Delvaux did not think of himself as a Surrealist. He dismissed the Surrealists’ automatism and rejected the social revolution of André Breton and his writings.[3] It is true that Delvaux’s works have a dream-like character with their nocturnal settings and hushed figures, but the images – stations, ancient buildings and the reclining Venus figure – do not directly refer to Surrealism. All the same, art historians generally consider him part of the Belgian Surrealist movement because of his participation in a number of important Surrealist exhibitions and his contacts with key figures like E.L.T. Mesens and René Magritte.

Between 1939 and 1942 Delvaux painted three versions of Les phases de la lune. The key figure in the three paintings is a man with a magnifying glass, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, the geologist in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) who searches for the origins of the universe. In a letter to the journalist and Verne specialist Pierre-André Touttain, the painter explained the presence of this scholar in his oeuvre: ‘I was fascinated by the fantastic journey to the centre of the universe and the rather comical personality of the professor. I already thought that the picture of the professor examining a geode was engaging when I was ten years old. At that time I copied Riou’s illustration and pinned it on the wall of my room.’[4] Édouard Riou’s illustrations would also be an important source of inspiration for later paintings.

In the first version of Les phases de la lune, which dates from 1939, Lidenbrock studies a fossil. A voluptuous woman, her breasts covered by a large pink bow, who sits opposite him on a balcony, fails to attract his attention. In the background a procession of naked women walk by, led by a young man. In the second version (1941) we are in a room. A naked woman stares straight ahead and once again the professor’s attention is on the fossil. In the background on the left a group of men converse. Scientific attributes are evidence of their interests. The door of the room is wide open, giving a view of a petrified, dead landscape. In all three works a waxing or waning moon can be seen in the background.



[1] During the opening André Breton gave a lecture on Surrealism entitled ‘Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme?’

[2] Emerson 1985, p. 61.

[3] Rotterdam 1973a, p. 18.

[4] Sojcher 1991, p. 27 and note 77 refer to this letter from Delvaux, dated 19 July 1970, published in ‘Le Cahier Jules Verne’, ed. De l’Herne 1974, p. 108.

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All about the artist

Paul Delvaux

Antheit 1897 - Veurne 1994

Paul Delvaux studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. His first paintings were strongly influenced by the Flemish expressionism of Gustave de Smet and...

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