In Focus: The genius of Léon Spilliaert — ‘If a ghost could paint, this is what it might look like’

Laura Gascoigne is enthralled by The Royal Academy's exhibition — available in virtual form on their website — focusing on Léon Spilliaert, a Belgian painter with a unique perspective on the sea.


N.B. Until the Royal Academy reopens, a virtual tour of ‘Léon Spilliaert’ is at www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/video-leon-spilliaert-virtual-tour


In 1900, a perfume was launched onto the Belgian market with a label showing an elegant woman on a blustery seafront clinging onto her hat as her skirts billowed out in front of her. Called Brise d’Ostende — Breeze of Ostend — the scent was manufactured by the grande parfumerie L. Spilliaert-Jonckheere in the fashionable Belgian seaside resort and the label was designed by the owner’s son.

Obliged by ill health to abandon his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bruges after only three months, the young Léon Spilliaert developed a style all of his own. His pictures proved harder to sell than his father’s perfumes, although they, too, distilled the essence of Ostend.

He was over 40 when he had his first exhibition in his native city, 60 when honoured with his first retrospective in Brussels. The Royal Academy’s exhibition — the first major showing of his work in Britain — has had to be closed for now, but, although there is no real substitute for seeing paintings in the flesh, it is at least possible to do a virtual tour online and discover the work of an interesting artist little known here.

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For Léon Spilliaert, darkness and moonlight deconstruct reality. He often walked at night to distract himself from an inflamed stomach, but he also used it as a chance to explore himself. Intense, atmospheric works such as this one expose the deep loneliness of the artist.⠀ ⠀ Walking became an inseparable part of Spilliaert. To walk the same route again and again can mean to think the same thoughts again and again. Spilliaert did not walk to be seen, but to think, and the emptiness of his paintings attest to this. The artist is alone.⠀ ⠀ Léon Spilliaert, 'Hofstraat, Ostend', 1908. Gouache, watercolour and pastel on paper, 63 x 48.5 cm. Private Collection – Courtesy of Francis Maere Fine Arts, Gent (B). Photo: © Cedric Verhelst⠀ ⠀ #art #fineart #Spilliaert #RoyalAcademy #insomnia #walking #alone #loneliness #paint #painting #belgium #em #goth #gothic

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A lifelong insomniac plagued by stomach ulcers, Spilliaert, as was his hero Nietzsche, was a nightwalker who, in the early hours, had his hometown to himself. The Ostend he portrays is not the seaside resort teeming with holiday crowds pictured on tourist postcards. In his work, its empty seafront is peopled only by the occasional female figure staring out to sea: a sturdy Fisherman’s Wife on a Jetty (1909), gnarled like a tree by the wind, or a wisp of a young girl, white petticoats whipped into a surf-like froth by The Gust of Wind (1904).

Most painters of seaside scenes are summer visitors whose images satisfy a desire for escapism. But there was no escape for Spilliaert from the endlessly bleak promenade of his hometown in winter or the immoveable horizon. His misty grey seascapes, dark, rainswept streets and wet promenades streaked with reflected gaslight are steeped in the peculiar melancholy of the out-of-season resort after the gay crowds have left. Yet on returning to his birthplace in 1922, after wartime exile in Brussels, he was overjoyed to rediscover his sense of belonging: ‘I am living in a real phantasmagoria,’ he enthused. ‘All around me, dreams and images.’

Dream-like as his images seem, he did not set out to explore the unconscious. Despite mixing in Symbolist literary circles in Brussels and Paris and admiring the oneiric black drawings of Odilon Redon, he disliked the Symbolist label — and wrote as much to a friend in 1904:

‘Symbolism, mysticism, it’s all madness, sickness. If only I could be rid of my restless, excitable nature… I would simply have gone off somewhere into the countryside and dumbly copied what I saw there.’

Instead, he simplified what he saw to abstraction, distilling its essence not in alcohol, like his perfumier father, but in ethereal watercolour.

Although he completed a few oil paintings, he was out of sympathy with the medium’s opacity. He ‘thought’ in transparent colour, using experimental mixtures of watercolour, gouache, ink, crayon and pastel to coax his fugitive images from the paper. The subtlety of his effects defies reproduction; standing before Promenade, Light Reflections helps you appreciate the skill with which he drags the shine of streetlights down the wet pavement. Examine Seascape (1905) closely to admire the mastery with which he catches the sun’s dying rays in the sea’s dark mirror.

Transferred indoors, his technical wizardry produces magical effects. Three bedroom interiors dating from 1908, when a near-fatal inflammation confined him to bed, are uncanny studies in the fall of light; in Interior (Bedroom with Beam of Light), 1908, the momentary flash of the Ostend lighthouse strikes the white bedspread, brass bed knobs and polished wardrobes with a brilliance that is almost hallucinatory.

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Stare into the eyes of an absinthe drinker, trapped in a haunted world only she can see.⠀ ⠀ Léon Spilliaert must have been struck by the sheer madness of this woman's stare as he usually showed women facing away from the viewer. The eyes stare fixedly but vacantly, sunk into deep black sockets in an otherwise deathly pale face. She was likely a socialite of Ostend, where Spilliaert painted this watercolour in 1907.⠀ ⠀ Even though Spilliaert was a fan of the fabled absinthe drinker Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, this depiction doesn't seem designed to promote the green fairy at all.⠀ ⠀ Léon Spilliaert, The Absinthe Drinker, 1907. Indian ink, gouache, watercolour and coloured chalk on paper, 105 x 77 cm. Collection King Baudouin Foundation, entrusted to the Fine Arts Museum of Ghent, Belgium, © Studio Philippe de Formanoir ⠀ ⠀ #art #absinthe #fineart #watercolour #watercolor #paint #painting #ostend #woman #addiction #alcohol #greenfairy #RoyalAcademy #Spilliaert

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The self-portraits from this period are haunted by intimations of mortality: in consecutive paintings dated November 2 and 3, he sits in a room lined with mirrors, his skull-like face lit by a mystery light source that seems to set his shock of blonde hair alight. If a ghost could paint, this is what it might look like.

In later works, such as Blue and Yellow Seascape (about 1934) and Beech Trunks (1945) — painted after his move to Brussels, when the Forêt de Soignes became the scene of his walks — he moved away from the brooding greys of his early palette into luminous colour. Yet, although superficially more appealing, these works don’t linger in the mind. A supreme master of a minor medium, Spilliaert composed his best works in a minor key.


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