Musée d'Orsay: Léon Spilliaert Dyke at Night

Léon Spilliaert
Dyke at Night

Dyke at Night
Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946)
Dyke at Night
Ink wash and watercolour on paper
H. 47,8; W. 39,5 cm
© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Digue la nuit [Dyke at Night]

After a short period at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Bruges between 1899 and 1900, Spilliaert was predominantly self-taught, building a career in his native town of Ostend in Belgium. Born around twenty years after the leading members of the Symbolist generation (the 1860 generation), he nonetheless adopted this aesthetic, and continued with it well after 1900.

He produced a series of still lifes, self-portraits and landscapes, all imbued with a distinctive atmosphere of worrying strangeness. Produced mainly on paper, he used techniques as diverse as pencil, Indian ink, pastel and gouache to explore all the possibilities of black in these works. This choice certainly reveals a certain pessimism (further fuelled by reading Edgar Allan Poe and Nietzsche), but was in harmony with those guardians of Symbolism: Odilon Redon (famous for his Noirs), Eugène Carrière and the American artist Whistler.

Dyke at Night is part of a series of landscapes produced in Ostend around 1908. This work, bordering on abstraction, is emblematic of the mysterious and desolate atmosphere that Spilliaert was so fond of. It has both the quality of silence and abandon, in which Khnopff had specialised before him, as well as the attraction to monochrome that first appeared in Whistler's famous Nocturnes.

This drawing is remarkable also in its stylisation. Spilliaert removes any hint of characterisation from his landscape: the buildings alongside the dyke at Ostend are rendered as dark, impenetrable masses; as for the vertical reflections from the street lamps, they embody the damp atmosphere of the embankment, an area of transition between land and sea where the elements exchange properties. In this atmosphere of all-pervading liquefaction, spatial reference points are lost. For Spilliaert, faithful in this respect to the spirit of Symbolism, the most important thing is to transfigure the locations, and to make them reflections of a state of mind. Solitude, mystery and hallucination all eat into this landscape.

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