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It could be argued that every painting Delmotte made, regardless of subject, functions as an allegory.

His paintings that depict the human figure, however, openly draw from deeply familiar stories and concepts that run throughout the history of Western culture: the loves of the Olympian gods, the suffering of Christ, the fear of death, the appeal of sensuality and carnal desires, the elation of physical beauty when juxtaposed with the despair of decay and destruction. He seemingly grafted together the harmonious proportions of classical sculpture with medieval expressions of faith, suffering, and apocalyptic endings. These narratives of the primeval origins of life, ancient mythology, Christianity, and modern society and its potentially wonderful and harmful technological developments are presented in his paintings as a means of understanding the human condition.

Delmotte’s approach to narrative, however, is far from a straightforward reiteration of these accepted iconographies of familiar stories. Singling out a single narrative in his work is often an exercise in frustration, and leaves the viewer feeling that there is more to understand. Even the paintings that would seem to be simply historical narratives or icons retains an aura of universality. Instead, he adopts significant aspects from this visual storehouse and reconfigures them to his own idiom, using the power of their recognizable detail to propel their broader implications. The visual lexicon of history was fair game for Delmotte: he chose charged images of the past to comment on the complicated existence of the present. Marrying human figures with landscape, still life elements, and architectural elements contributes to a sense that there is a story to tell, but it remains conceptually abstract despite its roots in human history and its visual forms. The artist seems to have preferred to leave these traditional avenues unpaved for the viewer, encouraging a more loosely associative reading of his work.

Nevertheless, there are recurring themes or concepts that seem to tie together his various explorations of human figures and historical narrative throughout his career. The theme of genesis surfaces consistently, either as a reference to the cataclysmic origins of the human race or as the generative force of nature and the universe. This creative power extends to the manner in which he executes the works themselves. In an autobiographical essay, Delmotte stated his belief that his art is always in a state of becoming,[1] and one gets the sense that he meant it as both a comment on the pronounced presentation of his craft in paint and the open-ended quality of the subjects he painted. Engaging with his work activates anew the artistic process and the comprehension of its perceived message. In direct contrast, these generative qualities are tempered by the impending sense of doom and decay inherent in the images of violence and death, fossilized landscapes, and the inaccessible nature of his ossified figures, rendered faceless or hiding behind masks.

This tension between creation and destruction found its climax in Delmotte’s career in a culminating exhibition in 1969 at Galerie Isy Brachot in Brussels. In interviews with local art critics and historians, Delmotte described the theme of his exhibition as that of humanity poised on the cusp of a new era in which we must decide between the good and the evils of science, to which he referred to as a “double-edged sword.”[2] Significantly, much of the exhibited work conveyed this anxiety over the future through historical images that referred to Biblical narratives like that of the Rebel Angel, the destroyed innocence of man, and the suffering and Resurrection of Christ. Given what Delmotte and his generation must have witnessed during the two World Wars, it is not hard to imagine how he must have been affected by the carnage and inhumanity wrought by science enlisted by humans in the destructive aims of war. Contemporary Surrealist translated their grief and horror at the world’s events during the war years into monsters, abstracted forms, and hybrid creatures, whereas Delmotte translated his reactions into the the apocalyptic dynamic of Genesis and the anguish of Christ. Humanity’s historical past is destabilized by the cataclysmically disturbing applications of technology and science in the modern era.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the unavoidable effects of contemporary events on Delmotte’s vision for his work, he created figural scenes that seem eternal in their timelessness, their reliance on classical motifs, and anonymity of place or moment. These isolated, sterile worlds contain poignant references to the human condition--sensual passages of flesh that are devoid of identity or self-possession, threatening juxtapositions of mechanisms and the human body, figures that elicit simultaneous reactions of lust and despair--that lay bare the complexity of human experience. These are not works that tell us how to feel or how to better understand, rather they are images that give place to anxiety, unsureness, and confusion that are the reality of life.

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[1] “Autobiographie et pensées sur l’art par Marcel Delmotte,” in George 1969, 229.

[2] Selim Sasson and Marcel Delmotte, “Le Monde des formes”, Emission de la Television Belge, 20 January 1969, transcribed in George 1969, 245.