Royal Academy, London (until May 25).
In collaboration with the Musée d‘Orsay, Paris.
Léon Spilliaert was an insomniac. He walked a great deal in the dead of night and developed an appreciation of all the shades of darkness that establish the still, silent, brooding atmosphere of his work displayed in a long overdue first British monograph exhibition at the Royal Academy.
Against the broader artistic backdrop, he draws comparisons with Norway’s great symbolist Edvard Munch and he absorbed the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nietzsche.
In the local Belgian context, he was a contemporary of another fascinating Ostend artist James Ensor.
Both found inspiration in the seaside resort’s carnival balls and their masks and the skulls lying a few layers beneath, but the comparisons end there. Whereas Ensor leans towards colour, daylight and the social milieu, Spilliaert creates a world of haunted, lonely figures, almost cinematic in their emotional angst.
Curator and pre-eminent Spilliaert scholar Anne Adriaens Pannier divides the roughly 80 works assembled from public and private collections in Belgium, France and the United States of America into four sections. They explore his engagement with literature as a voracious reader and as an illustrator; the half-light in which he spent so much time; a foray into brighter colours, reflecting the happiness he found in marriage and fatherhood; and the exhibition culminates in the self-portraits of an anxious, skull-like face with the dark-circled eyes of the sleep-starved.
Spilliaert is regarded as self-taught because his poor health forced him to abandon his formal art studies in Bruges and he has been frowned upon for his avoidance of oils. Modern critics are far more forgiving of his choice of Indian ink wash, crayon, water colour, gouache, pastel, chalk, pencil and pen as an inherent part of the atmosphere he conveys.
The subject he revisits time and again is the flat, Belgian, North Sea coastline. The results are dreamlike and with a stylised precision that almost Photoshops away anything that intrudes on the clean, artistic line. The Breakwater shows waves cut out like petals against the sand. Promenade with Lighthouse depicts the geometric shapes of human seaside constructions, while Spilliaert’s seascapes lure us into the graduated darkness of the sea as it meets the glimmer of light on the horizon.
In more positive moods, Spilliaert gives us blue sky and uplifting fluffy clouds seen through a ship’s mast, with all its implications of trade, purposefulness and adventure.
There’s also implicit humour in the apparently hastily-moving figure Returning from a Swim in the icy North Sea and there’s complicity in the two Girls on the Beach in over-size bathing hats.
Ostend was not just a fashionable resort, it was home to the Spilliaert family, where his father was a perfumer and owned a hair salon. Spilliaert wrought melancholy from both activities.
A study in lugubrious perfume flasks sitting on a mantlepiece and shimmering in the half-light hints at the objects Spilliaert on other occasions portrays in a mirror, together with his own face in his self-portraits. Meanwhile, his lonely take on the hair salon shows not the chattering classes being coiffured, but the stillness of an ante-room where their coats hang empty.
Equally, The Bedroom holds no cheer. For the chronic insomniac Spilliaert, an austere bed with crisp white sheets is hardly more inviting than the grave.
The exhibition’s final section takes us through Spilliaert’s famous self-portraits as he wrestles with his existential angst and eventually finds happiness in spite of himself. He shows himself reading, in silhouette at a window, with his drawing board and staring into the mirror, while his heavily-pregnant wife Rachel is depicted all in white against a bustling port backdrop.
The final section also includes The Glass Roof, a monochrome depiction of the roof of the studio in which Spilliaert captured on canvas the still, silent mood of the early hours when only the sleepless artist is awake.
While the masses throng the Picasso exhibition also showing at the Royal Academy, my money is on the meditative Spilliaert, as the coronavirus forces us all to face up to a period of crowd-avoidance and anxious self-examination.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.