The Sleepwalker of Saint-Idesbald is the most recent addition to our catalogue of Art Lives films that we distribute on DVD. Completed in 1987, this is a richly interesting documentary about the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux who died in 1994 at the age of 97. Delvaux is best-known for dreamlike tableaux featuring naked women in settings that are both fantastical and grounded in archaic Belgian townscapes. Adrian Maben’s film is a conventional biographical profile and its primary interest comes from the presence of Delvaux himself who relates his own life story. Plus there is a wealth of archive photographs together with images of Belgium at the time was shot, together with shots of many of Delvaux’s most famous images. There are some infelicities, such as incongruous music at times, and the film is very much of its moment, but it remains a valuable record of an intriguing artist. You can purchase the film here.
The frame of the film is a portrait of the artist as an old man. Aware of the end of his life, troubled by his failing eyesight, he looks back to his childhood memories and reveals the themes and obsessions of his work. There are the trams from his childhood, the railway trains and stations, and the dream of a young boy to be a station-master. There is the ‘provincial poetry’ of small Flemish towns. And from early on Delvaux was fascinated by the travelling Spitzner Museum, with its concern with anatomy and hygiene, and its waxwork models of the malformation of human bodies.
A visit to Rome in the late 1930s brought the ruins of the classical world into his canvases and during the war skeletons made an appearance, but Delvaux is one of the rare painters whose work seems to show little stylistic progression. His precise and naif style is much the same at the end of his career as it was at the beginning.
Often described as a Surrealist, and unquestionably influence by De Chirico, Delvaux kept his distance from the group, despite being praised by its self-appointed leader André Breton. Dreams nonetheless are central to his paintings, as are naked women, and the film features many of them, both in the paintings and in life classes. There is, however, next-to-no engagement with questions about Delvaux’s representation of the female body, and the documentary does not feature any critics to discuss his images.
The writer Alain Robbe-Grillet was a fan, and he makes an appearance to talk about the unrealised sets that Delvaux designed for his collaboration with director Alain Resnais on L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1960). The film is nonetheless steeped in the atmosphere of Delvaux’s work, and this is perhaps the painter’s most significant legacy. Towards the end of his life, Delvaux was commissioned to paint murals for a number of private and public buildings. He also established a museum in the coastal town of Saint-Idesbald, with its ‘strong, pure light of the sea’ which Delvaux cherished, and we last see him enjoying this light that illuminated so much of his work.