On the Night Train, with P.D.

A “Real Talk With Dead Folks” installment featuring French painter Paul Delvaux, who would have been ninety-eight today.

architectural photography of building

Today is one of those days for Real Talk with Dead Folks, an occasional Breadcrumbs feature. I knew it this morning when I learned it was the birthday of French painter Paul Delvaux, and I spent my coffee silence with his work.

Joyeux anniversaire, Paul Delvaux. You would have been ninety-eight today.

You are known for your nude women, your long shadows, your anxious isolation.

I like your Break of Day, the topless figures gathered in what is either a palace courtyard or its ruins. At first I think they are women, then I see what appear initially to be the finned tails of mermaids. 

But that is mossy bark, not scales, and those are roots, not tails. And then I look closer: the faces, the pose of their hands, their stiff necks. These are not women, exactly, but statues of flesh and trunk. 

I consider the roots, how tight they look, not quite spread and not quite rooted, and so close to one another. It seems impossible for them to make it very long like that, in such arid land. Behind them, a clothed woman is running, the desert floor behind her. 

Mountains congregate in the distance, under sky. 

Elsewhere, Gestapo were making arrests, Stalin was enforcing his Great Purge––mere preludes to the next world war. Your skeletons were often more animated than your fleshy counterparts. 

The home of your childhood was burned during the war years. What became of your beloved trains? Desire and horror met on your platforms. You studied music in the museum room, while skeletons in a glass cabinet appeared to watch.

You knew the anxious city, haunted with skeletons. You called it the climate of silent streets, with shadows of people who can’t be seen.

Mirrors, moon, candles, books: these were your favored elements. Around the nudes and the flute players, your skeletons danced.  Always in your paintings, this sense of waiting: of separation, this terrifying emptiness; this ongoing cycle of arrivals and departures.

It’s the little girl in the dress I am wondering about, the one with her back to the viewer. She is watching the trains by moonlight. What else does she see?

Always in your paintings, there she is: the beautiful but inaccessible muse. You painted her anyway, unable to keep from looking. 

It is for this that I bow to you. The way you saw death everywhere, and still looked for something else. The way you seemed to know your salvation to be just out of reach, while you reached anyway–– seeming to accept, by your actions, some unspoken contract. We all sign it to live here, but most are afraid to read the fine print.  It’s enough sometimes, to live for the unseen, the untouched. I like to think that this is what makes your skeletons move the way they do.

More about Paul Delvaux’s work:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

More Real Talk with Dead Folks

Real Talk With Galileo

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

Here’s to W.G., absurdist O.G.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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