From Apollo Magazine 25/03/2020
It is the sense of the uncanny working hand in glove with the familiar that sets Spilliaert apart from Symbolist precursors such as Edvard Munch or Odilon Redon. Spilliaert was close to the Belgian Symbolist poets in his younger years. In 1903 he was commissioned to illustrate by hand the publisher Edmond Deman’s personal copy of Théâtre: a three-volume edition of Maeterlinck’s plays, amounting to some 770 pages of drawings.
But in 1904, Spilliaert declared: ‘Symbolism, mysticism, it’s all madness, sickness.’
Despite long friendship, his work also bears very little resemblance to that of James Ensor, Ostend’s most famous artistic son. Spilliaert’s painting of the decade from 1904–14, on which the curators of this display have judiciously focused, is that of an artist who has shunned external influences in favour of personal solitude and his morbid curiosity in what he found to hand.
Nightmarish figures appear in these paintings – his Gust of Wind (1904) might almost be a pendant to Munch’s Scream, while the lips of his Absinthe Drinker (1907), tinged with his signature shade of ultramarine, make her seem like something out of a Tim Burton film.
But Spilliaert is at his spookiest when depicting reality – whether turning his gaze to the ocean, or focusing on more inward mysteries. Sullen tonal combinations of mauve, white and blue, in a series of 1908–09, render his bedroom claustrophobic and poised for some supernatural event.
In Flasks (1909), the vials used by his father, a perfumier, take on an enigmatic monumentality worthy of Giorgio Morandi. The vast bulk of an aircraft Hangar (1910) is made to look rickety and insubstantial by the jet-black mass of water it stands beside. Gowns hanging on the rack of the Hairdresser’s Salon (1909) morph into shadowy figures in profile.
In the celebrated series of self-portraits he made throughout his twenties, the artist himself appears curiously static. He’s caught in one of two poses – staring straight at the viewer or, more often, glancing fearfully over his left shoulder.
But all the while, the world around him – glimpsed in the reflections of a mirror, or the window before which the artist is cast into shade – shifts and mutates.
The Royal Academy of Arts, London is temporarily closed to the public due to the Covid-19 outbreak. For more information on ‘Léon Spilliaert’ (scheduled to run until 25 May) visit the institution’s website. You can also take a virtual tour of the exhibition.
Thank you to Apollo Magazine for the article from which this is an excerpt, and for the info re the virtual tour