Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946) produced most of his work in his home town of Ostend, on the North Sea coast of Belgium. Largely self-taught—he only attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Bruges for a few months—he learned his craft through his friendship with the Brussels bibliophile, collector, and bookseller Edmond Deman. Shaped by his reading, and in particular by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Lautréamont, Edgar Allan Poe, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Émile Verhaeren, with whom he became firm friends, Spilliaert defies classification as an artist; he has affinities with Symbolism, but also with Expressionism, and sometimes even verges on abstraction.
Between 1900 and 1917, his work was dominated by a “gloomy and serious” note. Using ink, his favorite medium, exclusively on paper, he drew solitary ghostly figures, mask-like faces with crazed, wild eyes, and interiors and landscapes in which light emerges from darkness.
The exhibition focuses on Spilliaert’s intense and radical early creative years. It groups—chronologically and thematically—works which present variations on the artist’s recurring obsessions and preoccupations.
Spilliaert, a reader and illustrator of Verhaeren and Maeterlinck
Spilliaert was introduced to Verhaeren (1855–1916) by his publisher Edmond Deman and formed a close friendship with the writer. Verhaeren, who belonged to the older generation, was a mentor, offering encouragement, introducing him to the Parisian literary scene in 1904, and becoming one of the earliest supporters and collectors of his work.
In a letter written in Ostend on June 26, 1913, Spilliaert expresses the intensity of this friendship: “Whenever I took my leave of you, in my mind I would always recite the prayer: Lord protect me from dull gray hours so that I might always feel as if I had met Verhaeren, by which I mean full of love and elation.”
Maeterlinck (1862–1949) and Spilliaert never actually met, but the artist’s early works are close to the dark and stylized atmosphere of his fellow Belgian’s first plays, which he illustrated for a collector’s edition commissioned by Edmond Deman. The allusive and mysterious world of Maeterlinck’s writing, dominated by death, provided inspiration for the stand-alone sheets entitled “Maeterlinck Théâtre.” The dark and stylized mood of the Indian ink works produced by Spilliaert in the 1900s is close to that of Maeterlinck’s plays.
Referencing Maeterlinck’s play Intérieur (1894), which was illustrated by Spilliaert, this group of works conjures up avantgarde theater at the turn of the century.
Lugné-Poe, the founder of the Théâtre de l’OEuvre, who staged plays by Maeterlinck and Ibsen with contributions from Nabi artists, wanted to make “the life of souls” visible.
Spilliaert painted solitary, disembodied, ghostly and often lugubrious figures in confined, oppressive spaces. Misery and Alone evoke the tortured Expressionist world of Edvard Munch, whereas The Absinthe Drinker —a modern subject painted by Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rops, and Picasso—seems to have come back from the dead to suck the lifeblood from the observer with her wild gaze. Sometimes, by contrast, figures’ eyes are not visible, like the ghostly young woman sitting facing the wall between two windows. This is a universe permeated by death, as is particularly apparent in the bedroom with its shroud-like white bed.
Like many artists, Spilliaert was a willing model for his own work and produced many self-portraits between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-eight. His early self-portraits dating from 1902–3 faithfully capture the bitter and rough appearance of his tortured face. He explored the potential offered by the genre in a very intense way through to 1907–8, a seminal period during which most of these works were produced.
Spilliaert always depicts himself in a dark jacket and white collar, rather than as a bohemian artist. He sometimes opts for tight framing that accentuates his intense gaze as he pursues his self-scrutiny. At other times, by contrast, he positions himself in a much larger space—the creative space—often rendered oppressive by an interplay of interlocking frames and repeated straight lines which imprison him like a cage. He portrays himself surrounded by familiar but unsettling objects: corpse-like coats, clocks and calendars recalling the inexorable passage of time, and the abyss of a mirror poised to devour his fragile image. Although he occasionally depicts himself at his easel, he is less interested in presenting himself as an artist than in exploring his identity in silence and solitude. This search for the self leads the artist to create a monstrous distortion similar to a nocturnal hallucination: the sleepwalker self-portrait.
Ostend is one of the main characters in Spilliaert’s work. The suggestive power and drama of his art is partly inspired by his home town. Long solitary walks along the shore led him to produce dark ink-wash seascapes with high horizon lines accentuating the vastness of the sea, which reflect his tortured soul.
Spilliaert was also interested in the contrast between the sea and the town which characterized Ostend. The humble fishing village had become a fashionable seaside resort. The linear architecture of the buildings initiated by King Leopold II—the Kursaal casino, the seawall-promenade, and the Royal Galleries—marked the appearance of straight lines in the artist’s work as he stripped composition and form back to basics. This purely geometric or even minimalist motif accentuates the pervasive atmosphere of solitude and anguish that mirrors his own experiences. At night, the dark hulking mass of buildings softened by dim light from lampposts blurs all reference points and induces a dizzying sense of infinity.
In 1908–9, Spilliaert rented a studio on the Visserskaai (“Fishermen’s Wharf”) with broad vistas of the harbour through the window. His attention was captured neither by the bustling port area and the fashionable appearance of the seaside resort, nor the harsh working conditions, but by the fishermen’s wives, whom he transformed into archetypes for waiting. These dark figures are often seen from behind, scanning the sea from the wharves, silhouetted against the water. Either singly or in groups, these figures always seem to be imprisoned in their melancholy solitude.
Spilliaert revisits this radical formal simplicity when he turns his attention to the traditional Ostend carnival. The protagonists in loose robes resembling white shrouds or in their dominoes become monumental silhouettes that look as though they are floating and lend a strangely theatrical air to the scene.
Between 1917 and 1920, Léon Spilliaert explored lithography. He produced Hothouses in 1918 based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s collection of poems, Serres chaudes, published in 1889. Like this group of prints, his images of interiors produced in previous years simply depicting glazed canopies, windows closed against the darkness outside, and rampant vegetation reflect the melancholy world of “greenhouses of ennui,” “bell jars,” and other metaphors describing the poet’s soul.
At the outbreak of World War I, Spilliaert, who had joined the civic guard, was quickly invalided out. In 1916, the year in which his friend Émile Verhaeren died, he married Rachel Vergison, and their daughter Madeleine was born in 1917. His work gradually began to change and became more colourful. The artist slowly moved away from “gloomy and serious” notes. His work for Hothouses could be considered to mark his final interaction with the allusive and anguished world of Symbolism.