[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Self-Portrait with Moon (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 488 x 630 mm, Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. 6923]
Visitors to the Modern section of art museums in Belgium will soon come across stark and dramatic art by an unfamiliar name. Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was a Belgian artist, associated with but not part of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements of the period. Curator and scholar Anne Adriaens-Pannier has become the world’s leading expert on Spilliaert. She prepared the catalogue raisonné and has assembled the most detailed body biographical information about the artist, not least due to her extensive and long-lasting contact with his descendants.
This publication is a major advance in making Spilliaert’s art known outside Belgium. His art is in private hands in Europe and in Belgian museums but has only recently been exhibited more internationally. This major monograph makes an excellent guide to the artist’s life and work, provides detailed information, a bibliography, chronology and plentiful information about the artist’s output, career and ideas.
The early work moves between modes of satire, social criticism, mythology, caricature and cartoon. Early pieces include the gamut of juvenile subjects: interiors, street scenes, solitary figures, caricatures, fantastic figures, symbolic characters and humorous scenes. Almost all were drawn in stylised forms and – with the exception of some self-portraits and interiors – produced from memory or imagination. There is often a bold stylisation with swathes of black. It is close to the sort of art published in illustrated journals and newspapers. We can relate it to the Modernisme of Barcelona, Jugenstil from Vienna and the closer influences of Belgian Art Nouveau and French Symbolism. This was also the time when Aubrey Beardsley’s black-and-white style was at its most popular. We can detect common refrains in Spilliaert’s art – the preoccupation with the morbid and grotesque, the artificial and synthesised, the decadent and uncanny, the ambiguous and androgynous. However, Spilliaert is never overtly erotic, as Rops and Beardsley were. There is a fascination with the strange but never an obsession. For Spilliaert, excess is a matter of detached speculation rather than something in which he indulged in his everyday life. Spilliaert was an early reader of Comte de Lautrémont’s Les chants de Maldoror, a fan of Nietzsche (of whom he drew some portraits) and someone familiar with Symbolist poetry.
Peculiarly, in his best work Spilliaert hardly went beyond the adolescent stage of art, with its interiority, self-absorption, heightened emotion, small size and lack of externally derived correction. Although indebted to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, Spilliaert was artistically and professionally isolated. He always preferred working on paper to using canvas; he stayed with ink, pencil, charcoal, watercolour and pastel, never achieving much in oil paint or sculpture. (His oil paintings were produced at the behest of gallerists who found those easiest to sell.) His palette is most effective when limited to cool hues, with little contrast in colour. The impressive thing is how he managed to extract the very best from a narrow emotional and thematic base.
He was essentially self-taught, spending only a few months studying in Bruges. He spent most of his life in his birth town of Ostend. The most important artist of Ostend was James Ensor, who was a minor celebrity in the town by the time Spilliaert started working. (Ensor outlived Spilliaert by a few years, dying in 1949.) Spilliaert greatly admired Ensor’s interiors. Ensor’s marines were very painterly and reliant on the effects of oil paint, so they could not be a direct influence on an artist using Spilliaert’s materials. Pannier includes an excellent and illuminating discussion about the personal and artistic links between the two artists. Ensor’s satirical drawings and prints directly inspired Spilliaert to produce his own interpretations on the subjects, though usually less scabrous and bitter.
Spilliaert did join societies, participate in group exhibitions and form connections to other artists. Spilliaert is best thought of as an individualist associated with Symbolism, alongside Vilhelm Hammershøi, Helene Schjerfbeck, Félix Vallotton and others. Other artists such as Alfred Kubin, Odilon Redon and Félicien Rops are suitable comparators. An extended chapter relates Spilliaert to Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery (who taught Spilliaert briefly in Bruges), Munch, Ensor, Constant Permeke, the Nabis and Japanese prints. Adriaens-Pannier helpfully weighs up the specialist literature (mostly available only in Flemish), which allows us to understand the debates which have shaped the reception of the artist’s work. She describes the artistic and literary affiliations that added to the formation of the art and is particularly good at setting his work in a historical context. Whilst not all of Spilliaert’s art will be to single viewer’s tastes – indeed there is a chasm between later colourful work and the early tenebrous style – Adriaens-Pannier even-handedly informs us about the multiple interests of the artist.
The interiors are domestic, generally, and still-lifes are of everyday objects (boxes, bottles, house plants). His early self-portraits are characteristic of Spilliaert. His slender form, strong facial shapes and flamboyant coif of hair provided a base upon which to exaggerate with powerful shadows and highlights. (He often posed under a raking overhead light at night.) His clothing is formal, with a high collar and dark jacket. He is the epitome of a damned artist or anguished aesthete. Coloration in muted, sometimes little more than a touch of isolated colour in an otherwise black-and-white picture.
Pictures of other figures depend on mood. When the figures are simple, dark, dramatic and isolated they work best. The caricatures, portraits (aside from the self-portraits) and pieces in high colour are much less successful. In the latter, the influence of the Nabis leads Spilliaert away from his strengths. Realism is not an issue, as the art that is realistic (the self-portraits) and unrealistic (the dream-like compositions) are both effective – just as the art which blends verisimilitude and artificiality. Contrasting or bright colour diminishes the impact of Spilliaert’s art.
[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade and Lighthouse, 1908, Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 505 x 395 mm (day)]
Much of the artist’s work concerns the sea. A constant presence in Ostend, a repeated subject for local artists, the sea provided Spilliaert with a chance to approach nature as vast and temperamental. The fields of flowing water, dramatic elongated reflections and counterpoints between Ostend’s seafront architecture and areas of water all allowed Spilliaert to address subjects such as the infinite, nature, the frisson of fear and wonder in tranquillity. The sea and beach gave his art greater breadth of expression and subject. Receding tides, reflections and ripples gave Spilliaert a chance to use the bold curving lines the dominate Art Nouveau aesthetic. The lone figure on the beach was a staple of contemporary art. These scenes show the introverted artist reaching for boundless expanses without leaving his home.
The beach became a dream-like stage that took on existential qualities, with lone figures free of ties and given freedom in return for lonely isolation. The sweeping beach and promenade are scenes of contemplation, free of detail, cut adrift from the society which made the structures. In a sense it prefigures de Chirico’s dark shadows, empty plazas and stripped down imagery. In some brilliant and haunting images, Spilliaert showed fans of light emanating from doorways in the elongated promenade building, placing us in the dark night, removed from light and life but still able to access those human necessities. These are images that embody existential art and should be as well-known as the art of de Chirico and Edvard Munch.
It is admitted even by his supporters that a fair quantity of Spilliaert’s art is unsuccessful. The pictures of women are types rather than individuals, lacking memorability or appeal. Late-career excursions into brighter landscapes are absolute failures and make painful viewing. His religious art scenes (the deployment of icons in abstract spaces) are oddities. The oil paintings he made to satisfy gallerist requests are not a natural fit for Spilliaert’s strengths. The best of the late works are scenes of trees.
His forays into lithography were much more successful. He produced single-colour images using the grain of the plates and paper to produce equivalents of conté drawings. The outstanding works are The Avenue (1899) and Woman Sewing (1899).
In 1917 Spilliaert moved to Brussels to improve his income (he was now married and they were expecting a child). The coloured watercolour scenes of bathers of this time are light-weight. His return to Ostend in 1922 apparently came as a relief to him and his wife. The high colour of later years – influenced by Fauvism and Expressionism – makes the later period of less interest. His society portraits and commercial work (aside from some illustrations) are uninvolving. Apart from some early flirtation with social commentary, Spilliaert was politically unengaged. Depictions of fishermen and fishwives in Ostend became a recurrent theme (something he shared with his friend Permeke). The artist’s interest seems more sentimental than attached to any desire to delve into social realism. Spilliaert became more established over the 1920s to the 1940s, assisted by a return to Brussels in 1935.
[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade, Light Reflections (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 480 x 394 mm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay]
Overall, Spilliaert is uneven. One could hardly react so warmly to all his contradictory styles and subjects. He has weaknesses – a tendency to decorativeness, an infelicity handling certain materials, a poor sense of colour outside of a near-monochrome approach, a certain aimlessness in his last decades – but at his best he is brilliant. The early interiors, self-portraits, beach and sea views and moody isolated figures are haunting and wonderful. They have the power to impress themselves upon your memory and strike a deep chord.
Adriaens-Pannier has used family testimony, contemporary sources (including the artist’s own writings), archive photographs, access to archives, a wide knowledge of the period and an unparalleled understanding of Spilliaert’s life and art to produce an absorbing book. The illustrations are extensive and high quality, many full page. They reproduce key pieces and less accessible works in private collections. This excellent monograph can be unreservedly recommended and will become the standard reference work for any English-language researchers studying Spilliaert.
Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Léon Spilliaert: From the Depths of the Soul, Ludion, 2019, cloth hardback, 336pp, €59.90, fully illus., ISBN 978 94 9181 990 2
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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