Léon Spilliaert: The Longing Behind the Symbolism


Whilst Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert’s first UK retrospective at London’s Royal Academy has been put on hold, we delve into his symbolist works and the longing behind them.

Léon Spilliaert, The Shipwrecked
Léon Spilliaert, The Shipwrecked, 1926. Watercolour, gouache, Indian ink and pen on paper, 54.2 x 75.3 cm. Private collection.  Photo: Luc Schrobiltgen.

When the rest of the city was sleeping, Léon Spilliaert would walk along the moonlit streets of Ostend; located on the Belgian coastline, the city heaved with tourists in the summer and became quiet as the season changed. Favoring the melancholy, empty streets, Spilliaert calmed his chronic insomnia and was often inspired by late night walks.

Learning of Spilliaert’s biography, which the RA’s retrospective sheds light on through key themes in his work, it is easy to see his beige seascapes and lonely figures like an unfamiliar dream. A literary fan of Edgar Allan Poe with a Symbolist approach to painting, Spilliaert thrives in the disenchantment, emotion and decadence that characterize his works. Whilst the show has been paused, we take the time to break down the waiting women, reflection of self, ghostly characters and oozing landscapes in his oeuvre.

Waiting Women

Léon Spilliaert, Young Woman on a Stool
Léon Spilliaert, Young Woman on a Stool, 1909. Indian ink, pen, coloured pencil, colored chalk and gouache on paper, 70.3 x 59.9 cm. The Hearn Family Trust 

Figures, particularly women, are often depicted as waiting in Spilliaert’s work. In a recurring motif throughout the show, a solitary subject is turned away from the viewer and appears to gaze out at the shoreline or through a window; this sense of longing may have stemmed from Spilliart’s own physical ailments, as he suffered from chronic stomach pain from a young age which led to various complications in his life. For example, at aged 18 Spilliaert enrolled in Bruges’ Royal Academy of Fine Art but shortly had to withdraw from the course due to his health issues. Subsequently, he did not return to formal art education and taught himself.

In his work, Spilliaert’s lonely figures reflect his own isolation – the fisherman’s wives that wait on the promenade, or the wide-eyed woman with her back against the railings. With various images tinged with a longing for something that is not yet present, there is an ongoing sense of life happening elsewhere. The sadness is prevalent, as Spilliaert uses his internal landscape as a reference for various seascapes and portraits; in is own words, Spilliaert wrote:

“I’m tired of waiting for luck to come my way, in the end that leads to abjection.”

Late Night Reflections

Léon Spilliaert, Self-portrait
Léon Spilliaert, Self-portrait, 1907. Gouache, watercolour and coloured pencil on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art © 2019. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.

The chronic stomach pain was also a cause of Spilliaert’s insomnia; both a blessing and a curse, some of his best self-portraits were created during these sleepless nights. Spilliaert made the sun-room his studio, using one of the many mirrors there as an aid, as the sun-roof invited beams of moonlight and distorted shadows as atmospheric elements to his self-portraits; these works were often haunting and macabre, with a ghostly pallor to his face and dark rings under his eyes. Baring all to the viewer, Spilliaert was unapologetic in his depictions of self and they are now the most popular aspect of his artistic legacy.

Over a two year period in his early twenties, he produced many self-portraits at different levels of distortion or obscurity. Much as with his depictions of women waiting, his self-portraits also serve as an introspective gateway to his desire to achieve more, internal suffering and prevalent solitude. Incorporating various empty frames and often evoking an uncanny feeling, Spilliaert’s self-portraits linger like a dream bordering on a nightmare.

Ghostly Figures

Léon Spilliaert, The Absinthe Drinker, 1907. Indian ink, gouache, watercolour and coloured chalk on paper. Collection King Baudouin Foundation, entrusted to the Fine Arts Museum of Ghent, Belgium, © Studio Philippe de Formanoir.

Spilliaert didn’t only depict himself in a haunting, ghoulish manner. In works reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Spilliaert uses flat colors with his signature contrast between light and dark to depict disturbed characters. For example, The Absinthe Drinker sees a wide eyed woman’s inner-turmoil, despite her fashionable dress and accessories; through an image riddled with anxiety, Spilliaert depicts the darkness of addiction in a particularly emphasized style.

Meanwhile, a similar anxiety tints works like A Gust of Wind, as a dark, lonesome figure stands with a gaping mouth and her hair blowing in the breeze. The viewer is invited to ask what happened to these characters, and what caused the alarm on their faces; much as with Spilliaert’s self-portraits, there is an air of mystery that enshrouds the troubled figures. Both women, along with many of his other characters, appear on the edge in one way or another; physically on the edge of the coastline, or walking the line between bourgeois society and emotional disturbance, these figures always seem seconds away from transgression. Restrained by a metal railing or perhaps important company, Spilliaert’s characters cannot hide their true state on their faces. Straddling the space between acceptance and rejection, the liminal figures embody the artist’s youthful alienation.

Léon Spilliaert, A Gust of Wind
Léon Spilliaert, A Gust of Wind, 1904. Indian ink wash, brush, watercolour and gouache on paper. Mu.ZEE © www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photo: Hugo Maertens.

Back to Nature

Léon Spilliaert,Dike at night. Reflected lights
Léon Spilliaert, Dike at night. Reflected lights, 1908. Indian ink wash, pen and coloured pencil on paper. Musée D’Orsay. Photo: © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.

Despite the ongoing industrial revolution that was well underway in Belgium, Spilliaert often depicted empty streets, forests and landscapes. Atmospheric through his monochrome pallet, the streaming use of light and contrasting shadows of looming trees or buildings, Spilliaert embraces the hours when sunlight declines and life seems to be on pause. Sometimes tranquil, others haunting, the artist uses streetlights and the soft glow of the moon in many of his works.

Experimenting with perspective, Spilliaert obscured his hometown and used it as an ongoing source of inspiration. In the year that Dike at night. Reflected lights was painted, Spilliaert had moved into an attic studio which overlooked the port; witness to the changing tides and skies, these sights often fed into his paintings as he cherished the closeness to such natural shifts. Whilst in later years – after the marriage to Rachel Vergison, the birth of their child and a partial move to Brussels – Spilliaert’s natural landscapes softened, his younger depictions of Ostend are characteristically brooding with existential questions. Relishing in what is void, Spilliaert’s early depictions of the natural world are quietly as impactful as his paintings of people, drawing us into the empty streets as much as into the eyes of his longing characters.

Léon Spilliaert, Woman at the Shoreline
Léon Spilliaert, Woman at the Shoreline, 1910. Indian ink, coloured pencil and pastel on paper, 49 x 60 cm. Private collection. Photo: © Cedric Verhelst.

Despite the temporary closure of his exhibition at the London Royal Academy of Arts, Leon Spilliaert’s works can be viewed via this virtual tour of the show, encouraging us to slow down and enjoy the retrospective in an alternative way. At a time where the streets truly are emptier and many of us are more in solitude than ever, Léon Spilliaert’s works are increasingly prevalent as we learn to find the beauty in what is absent; the moonlight peeking through the trees, the empty roads illuminated by streetlamps, or the people walking alone in the streets.

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Léon Spilliaert: The Longing Behind the Symbolism was first posted on April 8, 2020 at 5:00 pm.
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