What would cities be without their ghosts? Mere collections of houses and people, a few marks scrawled on a map, agglomerations of anthills in the landscape. The fact that ghosts decide to stay in one place or another makes those places either interesting or insipid, a conjunction of mysteries or a rendezvous with insignificance, though many people cannot see the difference, because they are incapable of sensing the invisible presence of lost souls in cities: they wouldn’t recognise Nosferatu even if he were biting their necks. You need a certain curiosity and a receptive spirit, a tendency to play with ways of reading possible signs, and the antennae of a child. It is no use flirting with psychotropics or trying to see the emperor’s new clothes if they are not there: ghosts really don’t like fakes.
Just a few years before Spillaert was born, Madame Blavatsky, the legendary occultist and theosophist, wrote part of her Secret Doctrine in Ostend, inspired, as she says, by the spirits of ancient oriental sages. We can imagine her looking from the window of her hotel on the seafront watching the ghosts of the Flanders regiments and of those who resisted the siege of the city in 1601 pass by, the few that still roamed the streets out of the tens of thousands who lost their lives in one of those stupid gory episodes in history. Only a few, because ghosts gradually fade and vanish as time and oblivion wear down the endurance with which they cling to the world, fearful that nothing but the real exists and that even their tenuous existence as incorporeal beings will inexorably end in nothingness.
Madame Blavatsky, ill and declining, writing in a small hotel in this little city on the North Sea, has now herself become a soul wandering through the universe of ideas and appearances.
And if we look at Ostend without ghosts, what is it? A little seaside resort, just another lot of insignificant, nondescript architecture with a few surviving pieces of its belle époque past, a place where middle- and working-class holidaymakers take walks to while away the time in this new “age of tranquillity”, eating shrimps and sole à l’ostendaise and cycling or strolling along the prom. A land of pensioners with time on their hands and families, like so many places on this coast and on others. What attracts us is the possibility of glimpsing its ghosts: finding Stefan Zweig with Joseph Roth or Albert Einstein at a café table, Marvin Gaye running along the beach in a tracksuit, or Ensor, Spilliaert and Permecke discussing Les Chants de Maldoror in a quiet square. And more than this, finding the ghost city, the painted city, in the real city, the territory of dreams in a world of inconsequential moments.
To see ghosts in this world is apparently too much to ask, but it is something that those of us who are artists, art enthusiasts, lovers of art, are used to: seeing something that others do not see, finding the internal order that links matter and emotion, the conceptual puzzle, the equilibrium of a mathematical equation and a punch in the stomach.
The problem with the world of ghosts, and also with that of art, is that it is difficult to distinguish true from false, genuine from artificial, and almost anyone can pass himself off as a ghost-hunter or a medium with access to the other side.
The great escape artist Houdini, a fervent devotee of séances after the death of his mother, eventually embarked on a crusade against fraudsters and alleged clairvoyants who took advantage of the grief and loneliness of those who had lost their loved ones by staging elaborate pantomimes with which to fleece their naive victims. Houdini, who prided himself on being able to escape from any known shackles or confinement, took longer to escape from the clutches of superstition and fraud, but he ended up using those same chains to beat the deceivers mercilessly for years.
The trouble with coming up against so many fakes is that you can end up turning into a cynic with no faith in anything, just as the fear of lapsing into sentimentality can make us intellectually sterile, bland, mere compilers of crosswords for swots.
Seeing nothing. Seeing nothing is the first prerequisite to seeing. In the dense, tangled vegetation of the African savannah it is very difficult to see animals, except perhaps the herds of unsuspecting cannon-fodder, and it takes a lot of practice to see a pride of lions or a leopard watching us at close quarters.
In Ostend you can’t see anything, you can’t see Spilliaert, you can hardly even see Ensor, you can only see a well-oiled machine of producers and consumers, a little hive of domesticated Europeans, a fairly decent sea and some elusive ghosts. For it was Léon Spilliaert, who died on 23 November 1946, that had led us to this town on the North Sea, the footsteps of his nocturnal rambles along the ink-black beach, his geometric reflections in the sand: his face trying to tell us a secret from the other side of the mirror. It is not easy to explain why it had to be him, nor why certain bonds are established, certain subterranean rivers, between artists from such different backgrounds, a certain familiarity deeper than ties of blood, nor why there are journeys that simply have to be made: there are questions as slippery as eels, that are not only extremely difficult to get hold of but that give you an electric shock if you do.
To be able to see something in our particular quest for this much-admired Belgian lighthouse, we needed to avoid the hours of sunlight and the hustle and bustle and to look for moments of insomnia and sleeplessness, as he did in his day, or in his nights, going beyond the veil towards that other part of our existence whose traces are erased when we open our eyelids, that great blank map traced there in our consciousness, a terra incognita of lotus eaters and bottle imps.
If we think of the hours we spend sleeping, or of the stories we have stored up in our dreams, recorded in our psyche with the same intensity as memories, it seems strange to limit our biography to what happens during those few hours of social life. What about that other parallel life? What about those hours when we are awake but semi-concious? What about insomnia, that wandering, zombie state of meditation? What about hallucinations and daydreams?
Walking through the city at night we tried to force an encounter with the ghost in one of those alleys that open onto the sea, in some impossible angle, in a trick of the light amid the blackness, in the blue-tinged neon signs of a model boat shop, in the red entrance to a casino, in the empty tables of the restaurants, in the changing patterns of lines of the tides, or camouflaged among the night owls. But he wasn’t the one that appeared to us on our walks.
What were Richard Strauss, Toru Takemitsu, Dreyer and Murnau doing there? Why there and why then? We talked to ruined gamblers and to Leopold II’s butler, who was being bombarded with questions by a group of Africans in a strange tongue. But North Sea bouillabaisse is pretty indigestible and I can’t swear that all these things actually happened. Besides, ghosts are rather playful and often tend to disguise themselves and hide their true identity. We often see this in television series and in the latest products of the film industry, filled with the undead, zombies, spirits, and flirting with other dimensions: the ability of popular culture to interpret a period, as well as or better than sociological essays, the writings of philosophers and the theories of Dokumenta, is not to be underestimated.
The false and elusive trails, the ghosts disguised as ghosts, made us question the nature of the journey itself. Isn’t a motionless traveller a black belt in the ranks of the Order of the Knight Errant?
Uniting geography and art, genius loci and creativity, seems more a matter for out-of-date nationalists and archivally-minded historians than anything else, but there are many paths to knowledge and you don’t have to sit in the lotus position to meditate; illumination can come to you on a sweaty walk, in an airport departure lounge or at the bottom of a glass of Belgian beer.
The world is almost always a sham, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to say so out loud. Travel, that overrated pastime, can be a way of smoothing out the tangled paths of our neural connections, a way of opening new doors in the passageways of our little world. And once again, the ghosts are there. Although their ethereal nature enables them to appear whenever and wherever they please, in the peace of your studio or at the foot of your bed, they have a special homing instinct for certain places, a stubborn habit they cling to from their previous earthly life. So if we had to look for a door through the looking-glass, it seemed sensible to start looking in the corners of this city in Flanders, without questioning the point of the journey any further.
A journey can only be two things: an escape or a quest. And it can start as one and end up as the other.
In 1981 Marvin Gaye, the great American soul singer, arrived in Ostend, running away, fleeing from what he was turning into, to try to put the pieces of a broken puppet back together, and in the grey monotony of the Belgian mornings he found the solace he needed to start listening again to the sound of the great songs and reconnect to his sensibility: an escape turned into a quest.
Ostend, from the beginning, was a quest: for the hidden mystery, the emotional geometries, the tenuous links between biography and art, the connections of sensibility between north and south, between small European cities, between provincial artists, between the cosmopolitan and the local, between the present and eternity, between the night and its frontiers, a quest for what is within and what is without, for the tortuous relationship between literature and vision, for what is hidden behind the euro and the European Central Bank, for the possibility of carrying on painting for another century.
Just as every cell holds all the genetic information on what we are (and some recent studies indicate that they even hold copies of what is stored in the brain, memories and neural associations), each city can be taken to represent the whole. All of Europe is contained in any of its cities, all Europe’s history and its present are contained in a little city like Ostend, or Cartagena, all its spent energy, its broken dreams, its age-old weariness, but also its potential and its wisdom: you only have to look at it and decipher what it was and what it will be, like reading the coffee grounds.
In 1908, while Spilliaert was painting Vertigo in Ostend, Picasso had already revolutionised the course of history with his young ladies of Avignon, Duchamp was deciding to become a painter, Monet was working on one of his twilight views of Venice, Vallotton was recreating the the rape of Europa and Adolf Loos was publishing Ornament and Crime. All at once, as is the way of things, not in the orderly, smooth way the textbooks tell us: the past and the future walking hand in hand along the knife-edge of the contemporary.
Marvin Gaye arrived here by boat, on a ferry that you can only take if you have a car. You see them arriving and leaving for England, like whales full of iron donkeys, and we pedestrians stand there and watch the century tirelessly coming and going. Spilliaert did not have a bicycle, nor a camera, though that did not stop him basing some of his works on photographic images taken by others. One chooses what to take or leave from every period, and that choice, like others, determines in part what you will be in your own time, how you will be labelled, how splendid and brilliant your tomb will be, what posterity will say about you: there’s no need to worry, because the fact that you turn into an interesting ghost or a commonplace one does not depend on the opinion of others but on the intensity of your inner flame, whether you are a serial killer or a Portuguese office worker like Pessoa.
There was also an Ostend-Vienna train run by the Orient Express company until 1939, which is why you sometimes find groups of elegant ghosts making their way to the platform in the old station. You will never see Joseph Roth there. You might see Einstein, or groups of wandering Jews escaping from the European catastrophe.
Everyone can understand these little tales of ghosts; they come from the habit of story-telling and from the literary world, but they coexist with other apparitions of a different nature. These are sometimes confused with mirages, visions or inspirations. Ghosts in the form of gradations, blends and fades, horizontals and verticals, tones and shading, red mass versus grey surface, empty versus full, hard and heavy, light and rough, chord of C, dissonance, motif and spiralling fugue: specialised ghosts, more difficult to explain, easier to internalise in a generous spirit.
The fact is that in this land of ghosts a painter may have recourse to stories and theories, convoluted plots, and diverse pretexts, props and fuses to ignite a work, but that fleeting apparition of Stefan Zweig behind the curtains of the Hotel du Parc, that glimpse of Spilliaert dragging his feet along the breakwater, inevitably end up as material substance: if it’s not paint, it’s nothing; we can arrange the known and the unknown worlds as scaffolding and structure, but the visual is what brings stories to life or consigns them to perpetual oblivion. Power conspiracies, people’s dark inclinations, innocence and truth, are hidden under layers of colour, sometimes very fine, sometimes thick, and whether they remain as invisible ghosts or start to occupy their place in the world depends on the skill of the artist, or the eye of the viewer, as Duchamp would say.
Léon Spilliaert, an insomniac, trapped in the provinces and confident of escaping, like Houdini, from those imposed and self-imposed bonds, dreaming of journeys to distant lands that he would never make, visiting Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, an insomniac, trapped in his Swiss exile and in the spider’s web of history. (Or was it just a dream?)
Between the quiet life of the thoroughly bourgeois, reasonably eccentric provincial painter and the world he painted there is a wide gulf. Who is the artist, the impeccable Belgian family man in the photographs or the tormented soul in his self-portraits? The answer is both. And now, years later, who is Léon Spilliaert, studied by biographers and professors of art history, the maverick of Belgian postsymbolism or the ghost walking the streets of Ostend at night, the werewolf stalking unsuspecting twenty-first-century Mediterranean painters to extend his gaze across time? Both, or rather neither: he has now become an idea, and as such he is malleable material to rescue us from everyday life, soap suds with which we can try to blow a beautiful, majestic bubble, light and eternal, unfathomable.
One bright, misty morning we went to Ostend cemetery to pay our respects to the painter. You reach the cemetery by crossing neighbourhoods given over to the European dream, a Belgian variation on the American equivalent, full of low houses, quiet, slightly multicultural, and outside its old railings we began to recognise some ghosts in uniform in the style of the two world wars, lost young men awaiting their destiny, fishermen, bewildered lower middle class types. We asked for directions to Léon Spilliaert’s grave and a female attendant pointed it out to us on a photocopied plan. While we gazed at the headstone looking for signs, a raven perched on the grave alongside, watching us closely. We did nothing to frighten it away and it was still there when we left, a good while later.
Back in the town centre we heard the insistent cawing of a bird. We located it on top of a building next to a empty plot, with a curious effect of the light which I know will be a painting some day. The rook fell silent as soon as it saw me taking the photo it had pointed out to me. And I remembered the winged creatures Spilliaert drew to illustrate Lautréamont, those strange birds of prey, and his obsession with trees in his last years, and Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, and I thought the painter would have felt comfortable being a bird, and that at some point he was, or will be. And for the first time we felt quite sure that Spilliaert’s ghost is still there, somewhere.