The universe of this night is as vast
as oblivion, as precise as fever.
In vain do I try to distract myself from my body
and the vigil of an incessant mirror
which multiplies it, lying in ambush,
and the house that repeats its courtyards
and the world that extends to the last broken-down neighbourhood
of clumsy mud and alleys where the wind grows tired.
In vain do I await the disintegration, the symbols that come before sleep.
Universal history goes on:
the tiny course of death through the cavities in our teeth,
the circulation of my blood and of the planets.
Jorge Luis Borges: “Insomnia”
In the late spring of 2007 I accompanied Ángel Mateo Charris and Gonzalo Sicre on what was to be the first of their journeys to Belgium specifically related to the project which they are now, at last, presenting to us, in homage to Léon Spilliaert, an artist who had made a tremendous impression on them when they discovered him, exactly a decade before, during a visit to Brussels. Perhaps because it was the painters’ first trip, later followed by others they were to make, separately or together, pursuing more specific questions associated with their respective approaches to the world of the Belgian master, that early journey was undertaken somewhat on the spur of the moment and without much preparation, and this, in the event, was to lead to some frustrations, but also to more than one surprise. It must be said at the outset that this trip eventually turned out to have more to do with Tintin than with Spilliaert, not only on account of a visit to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren for a parallel project Charris was working on and which was then imminent, to illustrate Heart of Darkness, but especially because that other passion all three of us shared was also gratified by an exhibition, as wonderful as it was unexpected, on the world of Hergé — where, incidentally, we had the chance to watch an unusual old tourist promotion film of Ostend featuring a number of the Petit Vingtième reporter’s companions — and by a highly entertaining dinner, worthy of one of Captain Haddock’s more hilarious adventures. However, the main object of our peregrination, Spilliaert himself, seemed on the face of it to be more elusive. Admittedly we did gather a great deal of valuable documentation on him, but we were hardly able to see any of his works, as we had intended, because the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels was in the process of being reorganised to house the new Magritte Museum, and the museum in his home city, which has a wonderful collection of his works, had been closed for repairs for some time. But even so, that journey had a gift in store for us which definitely turned out to be much more valuable in the long run, for obvious reasons, offering us our first encounter with a crucial setting: that unfathomable coastline spilling out from Ostend into the North Sea.
As we know, it was not the first homage of this kind that Charris and Sicre had undertaken together. In the mid-nineties the two of them embarked on a similar adventure to express their devotion to Edward Hopper. In any case, the two projects have turned out to involve radically different approaches in the way they conduct their dialogue with the model they celebrate, and we shall find that disparity particularly enlightening on this occasion. In their tribute to the great American master, the most widespread perception, though perhaps not an entirely fair one, was that they had adopted a literal approach to recreating the distinctive atmosphere, settings, composition and painterly diction of that artist’s world. And this, at what was still a relatively early stage in the careers of these two Cartegena-based artists and at a time when they were beginning to become more widely known on the Spanish art scene, led more than one commentator to label them cheerfully as “Hopperians” and extrapolate what was simply strategic collaboration in a joint project to deduce that they shared a common profile in their respective approaches to painting, something which, obviously, their whole subsequent development has disproved, and increasingly so.
By contrast, in this current homage to the Belgian Symbolist there is not the remotest suggestion of painting “in the manner of Spilliaert”. They are now, of course, at a much more mature stage of their careers and consequently their personal approaches are firmly established, and so in this project both Charris and Sicre understand that getting close to another artist does not mean “painting in his manner” — even though, as we all know, that has always been a very common instinctive reaction among those who succumb to the fascination of devotion to a model — but rather exploring what one finds personally essential about that other artist and “putting oneself in his place”. In other words, asking oneself: “In his position, according to the logic of my own way of working, what would I do?”
But naturally it is not a matter of ordinary physical, objective places or of strictly geographical places at all, let alone commonplaces. These are mental places, precise and at the same time elusive, since like Parmenides’s river they can never be in any way the same for anyone or at any time. And indeed, this is true of Ensor, Permekke and Spilliaert himself; despite the fact that they shared a common origin and occupation and were from the same city and at least partially from the same period, their “Ostends” turn out to be both unequivocally personal and different. Just as these other “Ostends” by Sicre and Charris necessarily are, as we can see. Places of this kind, therefore, are what this shared journey in pursuit of the shadow cast by Léon Spilliaert is all about. And precisely such places are revealed in the conceptual design of the exhibition conceived in close complicity with the architect Martín Lejarraga for the layout of the display at La Conservera. It is a design that very eloquently recreates two stage sets in which the works are arranged in two parallel spaces: the nocturnal dream world of an imaginary beach, on the one hand, and on the other, the private territory of an artist’s studio, a place of solitary creation, which is precisely where the waking dreams take on their enigmatic final form.
As an extension of the stage setting of the beach at night, on an enormous scale, the exhibition includes a tryptich — in cinemascope, you might almost call it — entitled Supercalifragimetaphorical. This is one of the pictures where the element of Spilliaert’s world with which Charris chooses to resonate, apart from the beach in Ostend, is his cultivation of the portrait, and even more explicitly the specific subcategory of the self-portrait, which gave rise to such an essential series of works within the Belgian master’s output. These are genres which, on the contrary, are not commonly found in the work of the Cartagena painter, although in fairness it should be pointed out that he had already painted himself reading in a room, accompanied by Sicre, in one of the pictures in the Hopper series. Here Charris places his self-portrait in the centre, full-length, blowing out of his mouth something like an endless twisting amoeba-like soap bubble, which in some sense evokes the sinuosity characteristic of Spilliaert’s modernist manner. Moreover, beside him, on the left, is a portrait of Martín Lejarraga seated, and on the right, one of those “souvenirs” of characters made up of seashells, in the manner of Arcimboldo, which he has used as part of his iconography on previous occasions, but which is presumably included here in order to establish another point of convergence with the Belgian painter, who, like his compatriot Ensor, also devoted attention to compositions of shells.
Indeed, one senses that there is a second self-portrait in Insomnia, in the figure with his back turned gazing out at the unfathomable vastness of the ocean. This was also a common motif in the work of the Belgian painter, who was actually thereby reviving one of the fundamental formulas of the Northern Romantic tradition, so illustriously exemplified in the work of Friedrich. In any case, it is certainly curious that in this picture — which is programmatic, in a sense, since its title is that of the whole series and refers to a condition that Spilliaert suffered from and that played an important part in inspiring his creative work, as he himself said — Charris should have chosen to depict himself by day, on a beach bathed in sunlight. However, this paradoxical inversion in the figure of the daytime insomniac, in contrast to the sequence of nocturnal paintings that speak to us of Spilliaert’s inspired wanderings in pursuit of elusive sleep, may well appeal precisely to a more sophisticated and daring metaphorical level associated with the idea of insomnia. For it would appear that amid that vast brightness the insomniac becomes above all the wakeful, someone who is wide awake and who, by that very action of self-waking, manages to illuminate himself — and incidentally to illuminate us — in some sort of lucid, radiant epiphany.
But of all Charris’s exercises in portraits, undoubtedly the most enigmatic one here is, of course, The Escape Artists, subtitled Artists in the Provinces, a position which he and Sicre share with the Ostend painter. This picture shows two characters in a garden tied to 1950s-style armchairs with ropes, on the exit ramp of the garage of a house; the artist has given one of them the stunned features of Spilliaert, inspired by a photograph of the painter at just 17 — he includes another portrait of him in In the Mine, based on a photo taken during an trip to the Belgian High Fens in 1937 — whilst for the second “escape artist” he has most disconcertingly chosen the figure of another proverbial insomniac, none other than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Spilliaert, as we know, did an imaginary and somewhat sarcastic portrait of Karl Marx in 1910. But this coupling with the effective father of the Soviet Revolution is inspired by an anecdote, which seems to be definitely apocryphal, about the Belgian painter, who had supposedly fled to Switzerland to escape the rigours of the Great War, meeting Lenin during the latter’s tempestuous exile in that country, just a few doors away from the Cabaret Voltaire. And in their guise as escape artists, these two illustrious insomniacs, in their imaginary conjunction, take us back once more to the idea of a shared state of wakefulness, possessed of sufficient dexterity to free them from their bonds and awaken to a new spectral dream of the emancipation of the soul which was running through the heart of the European continent. And as we know — and it can seen in the efforts of these two and was predictable — the sleep of reason produces monsters. It’s just that some are more lethal than others.
When the series was at an early stage of development, in the first pictures, our two painters were still evoking Spilliaert’s compositions somewhat more directly. This is certainly true of Ostend, which Charris painted in 2007, with that forced foreshortening of the colonnade on the left, manipulating the perspective, or the trail of a cyclist’s rear light reflected on the ground, features which directly recall Les Galeries royales d’Ostende or even the more ghostly Digue, reflets de lumière, two of Spilliaert’s works from 1908 with the same motif painted from an identical viewpoint. And there is something similar going on, to a certain extent, in Sicre’s Ostend Lighthouse (2008), which also tackles a subject repeatedly painted by the Belgian master around the same period.
On the other hand, we can see an eloquent example of a much more elliptical and sophisticated way of presenting a paraphrase of Spilliaert’s world in another picture by Sicre from a much more advanced stage in the series. I refer, of course, to the way he takes that element of the curve receding from the foreground to the background, so characteristic of many views by Spilliaert — who generally uses it to trace the boundary between sea and shore and at the same time to articulate the rhythm of the composition — and adapts it to his own purposes in Sex on the Beach. In a way, it is like the device of the purloined letter in Poe, in that this compositional motif is placed in plain view but applied differently from the way it was originally used, so that if we did not know that this was just what we were looking for, namely a trace of Spilliaert, we would hardly identify it as such.
In any case, Sicre really finds his most intimate, personal and distinctive connection with Spilliaert’s painterly world not so much in the daytime scenes of the seafront in Ostend but rather in the three variants of the Café Belvedere, where the surrounding city can only be vaguely sensed in the pearly shapes of the streetlamps and the odd plant vanishing in the fog, or the reflection of that misty luminosity in the mirror, in contraposition to the desolate interior scene. It is these empty scenes, clearly a distinctive feature of Sicre’s work, that find a secret affinity in their austere strangeness with Spilliaert’s melancholy interiors from the first decade of the last century, such as his vision of the dining room of the former Hôtel d’Allemagne in Ostend, his views of his father’s workshop or the bedroom in semi-darkness and his taste for mirrors and objects: the blue bowl, the bottles of essential oils. And also the multiple interplay of the space divided between the mirror and the misty exterior in the extraordinary La Verrière from 1908. Indeed, in another interior, The Open Door, the Unmade Bed, Sicre actually returns to the radical geometry of the rooms in the series presented in “Continental”, his exhibition for Space One at the Reina Sofía, a set of works evoking Brussels, in which I identified an underlying connection with Spilliaert at the time they were shown.
However, there are another two pictures by Sicre, these nocturnal ones, which opt for a quite different line of reference in their approach to the great Ostend painter, one which, curiously enough, also alludes to one of his occasional incursions in a more radical vein. Léon Spilliaert was born, like Picasso, in 1881, and was initially trained, like him, according to modernist and symbolist principles around the turn of the twentieth century, yet his subsequent development did not conform to the traditional canonical model of modern art based precisely on subverting codes of representation, established by Picasso himself with Cubism. In this sense Spilliaert’s work is more in line with what came to be called “non-avant-garde modernity”, although this expression does not make so much sense nowadays. For despite the fact that he was certainly aware of how the debate was progressing in the French capital, a city where he spent some time almost every year between 1904 and 1916, his instincts and temperament drew him rather towards more northern and Central European circles and to models like Munch and Strindberg and his own compatriot Ensor, as well as to the Nabis, especially Vallotton and Vuillard, with their Intimism and their freedom of colour. But even so, Spilliaert now and then explored somewhat more extreme avant-garde modes, as for example in the sequence of watercolours and gouaches of around 1925, where he came close to “words in freedom” in a Futurist and Dadaist vein.
The most famous and daring of the pieces he produced at that time, Vieillesse, scabreuse, dangereuse, désastreuse, is precisely the work explicitly referred to in Sicre’s two nocturnal pictures. In these, the device of the painted word, which Sicre habitually includes, partially disguised, in the form of illuminated signs on the facades — as he does, to a degree, in one of these pictures, with the “Night shop” sign — is formulated directly, with no further pretext, as a word inscribed on the surface of the painting, with at most an ambiguous suggestion, conveyed by something inexplicable in the way the light strikes it, that the lettering is inscribed on a pane of glass, from behind which we are looking out at the panels and facades in the Ostend night. It is a device also employed by Charris in one of his “prequels” partially connected with the conception of this series, which he entitled Europia. In any case, along with the direct reference to Spilliaert’s “Letterist” manner, one of Sicre’s pictures adds another parallel allusion. I refer, of course, to La Brise d’Ostende, the name of one of the most celebrated fragrances created by the painter’s father, a perfumer, for which the son produced a well-known advertisement. This very same Breeze of Ostend — an “exquisite perfume”, as it says on Spilliaert’s watercolour — is also referred to in one of the pictures conceived by Charris, Paintingland, with the name emblazoned on the sail of the ship and the crew with their backs turned, in the manner of Friedrich, once again, looking ahead to the remote island that awaits them beyond the vast North Sea horizon. And in perfect symmetry with this, moreover, the pots of paint on deck are taken directly from the jars in the oriental market in Ali Baba, a fantasy by the Belgian master from the same period as his “Letterist” experiments.
Strictly speaking, not all the works in this series are clearly and directly connected with Spilliaert’s world, at least not in an obvious way, or even in the oblique sense that might be implied, for example, by the use of the portrait mentioned previously. This is true, for example, of Sicre’s Hippodrome or even Charris’s Et in Arcadia ego, which confine themselves to presenting a view of the seafront in Ostend as it now is, each in its own idiom, orientated towards the essential principles of their particular poetics. Unless, of course, we were to interpret the second picture, with its discourse on transience, as having been suggested by the more melancholy dimension of the Belgian master’s views or by the impossibility of tracing echoes of his time in the present.
In other pieces, however —I am thinking specifically of Euronomads, The Raven or The Descent — Charris, rather like Sicre in the Belvedere pictures, explores within himself a diffuse but certainly more eloquent resonance of Spilliaert’s visionary slant, even though the second of these pictures, with the bird which gives the work its title perched on top of a chimney, could also be interpreted as an allusion to the Belgian master’s well-known predilection for the dark world of Poe. But ultimately the references to Spilliaert’s world are most directly conveyed, above all, in the area of Charris’s work marked by “appropriationism” and composite images in a Pop Art vein. This is certainly true, even if it is not so obvious, in the case of The Ghosts of Ostend. For in this picture he chose a paraphrase of the arches on the dyke in Ostend, which Spilliaert painted repeatedly around 1908, as a setting for the enigmatic encounter between the explorer and the man wearing an African mask; these two figures, together with the gigantic wheel/coin in the foreground, doubtless refer to the Belgian painter’s unsuccessful attempt to make his own journey of initiation, like Conrad, associated with King Leopold’s overseas service in the Congo. But in the end, Posterity is certainly where the iconic legacy of Monsieur Spilliaert makes itself felt most literally and resoundingly in this tribute by the two painters from their remote southern province of the Republic of Cartagena. Except that in this picture Charris once again makes incisive use of a symbolic inversion device. In the large panoramic work with which we began investigating how traces of the Belgian painter are reflected in the series dedicated to him by his devoted Spanish colleagues, the quaint detail of the shells, as in other other earlier pictures by this artist using the same motif, acquires monumental proportions; here, however, the monument to Spilliaert on the seafront in Ostend recreating, grandeur nature, the structure he created in his legendary work Vertige, has been miniaturised. Charris wisely excludes the real monument, with its air of a theme-park attraction, opting instead to imagine it as a model and place it in a modern sculpture gallery. He adopts an ambivalent point of view in the composition, moreover; just as Spilliaert placed a skull on a delicate Chinese lacquered box, it looks as though there is an gigantic skull at the very top, which itself turns the whole thing equally into an allegory of vanity. It is a matter of ends, of course; just the true reflection of a face, which insomniac painters examine in the mirror of a dead painter.