Saint-Idesbald is a small, unremarkable seaside town on the Belgian coast situated between Ostend and the border with France. I spent a week there on a school camping holiday in the 1970s unaware that it was the home of the great Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897–1994). I suppose you could make the argument that the location of Dalí’s home in Cadaqués was equally unremarkable, but Dalí’s house was well-known, and that area of the Spanish coast is familiar from many of his paintings. The surprise in later discovering that Delvaux lived in Saint-Idesbald, rather than Brussels or Bruges, or even Ostend, is that the town is quite unlike the tram-haunted, cobblestoned, moonlit vistas of his paintings. It’s appropriate that JG Ballard thought highly enough of Delvaux to mention his paintings in some of his stories, and also commission reproductions of two lost canvases; Ballard’s Shepperton was an equally unlikely home for such a vivid imagination.
Paul Delvaux: The Sleepwalker of Saint-Idesbald is a film from the Naxos record label that lasts all of three minutes, but which happens to feature the first footage I’ve seen of Paul Delvaux as a working artist. Despite Ballard’s attention, Delvaux has often been passed over as a subject of Surrealist documentaries in favour of the usual trinity of Dalí, Magritte and Max Ernst. There are older documentaries in existence, however, so I’ll continue to hope they may turn up eventually. For anyone who happens to journey near Saint-Idesbald, many of Delvaux’s paintings can be seen in the museum there.