by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Prince of Darkness

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 June 2020
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Self-portrait (with drawing board)
by Léon Spilliaert, 1907



'I belong here so much I did not know that I loved the sea to such a point. I am living in a real phantasmagoria ... All around me, dreams and mirages,' wrote Léon Spilliaert on returning to Ostend after an extended absence in 1920, reflecting two of the Belgian Symbolist artist's lifelong passions: the seaside town of his birth and his immersion in dreams, which became inextricably interwoven in his work.

Spilliaert's family's roots in Ostend went back to late 18th century. His paternal grandfather had been a lighthouse keeper and his father Léonard-Hubert ran a successful perfumery business and hairdressers. The port, with its wide beaches, had become a fashionable resort after being favoured by the Belgian monarchy, and Léonard-Hubert's enterprise thrived, supplying the court and well-heeled visitors with his products. Léon was the first of seven children, born in 1881, a sensitive, introverted and rather sickly child, who early on displayed a precocious talent for drawing in his schoolbooks. He was also an avid reader and became interested in philosophy, in particular the writings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

In 1899 he enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy in Bruges, but after a few months was deemed physically unfit to continue there. Nonetheless, his father took him to the World's Fair in Paris in 1900 and bought him his first set of pastels. Léon used them to do his first portrait pictures, of his hero Nietzsche. Even at this early stage the artist established his idiosyncratic modus operandi: almost exclusively working on paper and cardboard, with combinations of pencil, Conté crayon, pastels, watercolour, Indian ink, chalk and gouache.

Although celebrated in Belgium and familiar to connoisseurs of Symbolism, Spilliaerts is much less well known in Britain. But he is now the subject of the first-ever exhibition in this country entirely devoted to him. Curated by Anne Adriaens-Pannier and Adrian Locke with Anna Testar, at the Royal Academy in London, it is accompanied by a handsome book.

Despite his suspicion of labels - an architect friend recorded his dislike of 'the spirit of the group, the party, the flock' - it was to Symbolism that Spilliaert was inexorably drawn, by his personality and artistic sensibility, by his taste in reading and by the intellectual circles in which he moved.

Symbolism was originally a literary movement first described as such by Jean Moréas in 'Le Figaro', in 1886. Its chief exponents wrote in French: the poets Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue and Henri de Regnier; the novelist and playwright Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, the novelist and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans, and the Belgians Maurice Maeterlinck, now remembered principally for his dramas, and poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach.

Symbolism in the figurative arts was not identified as such until 1891, by Georges-Albert Aurier. He also offered alternative terms, including 'synthétisme', but Symbolism won the day.

Mallarmé's aim 'to depict not the thing but the effect it produces' could equally be applied to literary and figurative Symbolism. Both versions of the movement strove to evoke rather than to describe, and both placed a high value on the ability of music to achieve this, seeking to emulate its effects in their own mediums. In the field of music itself, Debussy became the supreme Symbolist interpreter.

Spilliaert suffered from an acute sense of existential angst, almost a qualification to gain admittance to the Symbolist fraternity, Edvard Munch being prominent among them. Indeed, the Belgian artist sometimes sounds uncannily like some tortured character from a play by Anton Chekhov (whose works were being premiered during the same period), as when the artist wrote to his first patron, Edmond Deman in Brussels: 'Symbolism, mysticism, it's all madness, sickness, I'd like to tear up everything I've done so far, destroy it all. Ah! If only I could be rid of my restless, excitable nature, if only life did not have me in its grip, I would have simply gone off somewhere into the countryside and dumbly copied what I found there.'

Fortunately, like so many of the great Russian playwright's fictional characters, Spilliaert never fulfilled his wild threats and works spanning his entire career have come down to us.

Along with the near-contemporary French painter Édouard Vuillard, Spilliaert found his subject matter in his immediate surroundings. Among his first pictures were of his father's elegant scent bottles and attractive colourful presentation boxes.

As the critic Franz Hellens wrote in 1912: 'Nothing is simpler than his sources of inspiration. He found them all around him. This is the real secret, to animate, to express the interior life of objects and beings that are closest to hand: this is also the problem... there is nothing inert about such things. Reflections, as lively as a glance, the inflection of a line, a sonorous note, strange symmetries - all suggest obscure, silent existences to which no one usually pays any attention.'

Léon had from childhood suffered from chronic, sometimes crippling stomach pains, probably caused by ulcers. These induced insomnia and drove the artist to try to alleviate the agony by taking long solitary walks, typically at dusk, dawn and in the dead of night, through Ostend's empty streets and along the town's deserted promenades, dykes and beaches. The mysterious atmospheres he encountered there, the shining pavements, the dim lights twinkling in the mist, and cloud banks rearing like mountain ranges and, as he himself once put it, 'the sea spread out like a dream in the dying daylight', inspired many of his most powerful works. These were not executed from life, but in keeping with Mallarmé's formula of depicting not the thing 'but the effect it produces', done from memory after the artist had returned to his studio, adding to subjectively perceived reality a further layer of oneiric recollection.

The human presence in Spilliaert's Ostend pictures consists mainly of mysterious female figures, almost invariably seen from behind, fishermen's and mariners' wives gazing out to sea, anxiously awaiting the return of their menfolk, or girls and women alone in empty rooms.

In 1902 Spilleart was taken up by the Brussels publisher Edmond Deman, an active promoter of Symbolism who championed the writings of Mallarmé and of the Belgian poet and art critic Emile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck (who was to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911). Deman commissioned the young artist to do 348 drawings for his three-volume edition of Maeterlinck's 'Théâtre' - and to hand-illustrate with 770 drawings Deman's personalized, unique edition of the plays.

Emile Verhaeren was a major figure in the Belgian capital's avant-garde scene with excellent contacts in Paris, who brought together writers and artists from both cities. Every year Verhaeren and his group, 'Les XX', invited twenty painters to Brussels: Monet, Seurat, Pissarro, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin among them.

In 1904, with a letter of recommendation from Deman, Spilliaert went to Paris and there met Verhaeren for the first time. Verhaern introduced him to leading avant-garde artists and arranged for him to be exhibited alongside Picasso. In Paris, Spillieart also discovered Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec, both of whom had some influence on Spilliaert's subsequent work.

Introspection was de rigueur in Symbolist circles and in art it ideally took the form of the self-portrait. The alchemist and occultist François Jollivet-Castelot described his impressions of Spilliaert thus: 'The face is bony, strongly marked features, deeply hollowed cheeks under high cheekbones... Blue eyes, very gentle, and dreamy yet with cold steely glints.' All these striking characteristics were captured by the artist himself in some forty self-portraits, many of them painted in a particularly intense period during 1907-8, when the inflammation of his stomach became so severe that it was feared he might not survive.

However, the crisis passed, he continued to gain recognition and to find new admirers, including the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. He exhibited regularly in Paris, appearing with the likes of Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger at the notorious 'Cubist' Salon des Indépendants of 1911.

With the outbreak of the First World War and the German occupation of Ostend, Spilliaert's mother fled with one of his sisters to England. But it was during this period that the artist's life was transformed when he met Rachel Vergison, whom he married at the end of 1916. The couple attempted to take refuge in Switzerland in 1917, but by then Rachel was pregnant and for lack of funds the couple remained in Brussels, where Spilliaert's new-found happiness was crowned by the birth of a daughter, Madaleine.

Exiled from the beaches and seascapes of Ostend, Spilliaert began to take long walks in the woodlands around Brussels, where the family settled permanently there in 1935, so that Madaleine could pursue her ambitions as a pianist. And although Spilliaeart's last works before his death in 1946 may lack the intensity of his earlier images, his serene last studies, centred on trees, were still imbued with an elusive, dream-like quality.

Léon Spilliaert; Royal Academy, London; 5 August - 20 September 2020 (with period of closure due to Covid); Léon Spilliaert, edited by Anne Adriaens-Pannier Royal Academy (£35)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023