Spilliaert: Substance and Dissimilation


Tuymans, Luc

Spilliaert is and was an artist who couldn’t be categorised. He was often typecast as a Symbolist. But I think his range was far greater, since in his lifetime he bridged Symbolism and Expressionism and, even more importantly, developed a kind of figurativism verging on the brink of abstraction. For myself Spilliaert was an important influence, since the way he positioned himself from the beginning was entirely his own. This is amazing considering that he was self-taught. What struck me as a young man was the singularity of his imagery and the decisiveness with which it was formulated within the idea of reduction and stylisation of people and objects.

His atmospheric imagery, although totally different, also reminded me of a painter who for me remains, to this day, highly enigmatic: Caspar David Friedrich. Think of his Monk at the Sea. Both artists sort of make the spectator aware of the idea of distance, measuring, as it seems, the distance between the image and its viewer. As with Friedrich, who immediately appealed to me as a visionary artist, creating mental imagery surpassing the real, Spilliaert also came across to me as extremely contemporary in the way he depicted people and objects and, even more importantly, how he positioned them within space, from which angle he made his approach. Very few of Spilliaert’s images, especially in his earlier years, say up until 1914, are frontal. They are mostly formulated within diagonals or seen from above or close to a near-impossible frog-like perspective. If one bears in mind an image like Le Vertige (Vertigo), from 1908, one cannot help thinking of an animated film image, which, as a film image, begins to work on the viewer’s mind or psyche, distorting his perception of time. Women on the Beach, from 1907, is another work that does this, and there are many more. There is also the strange mix of awareness and unease these pictures create, because they never fully disclose themselves, perpetually growing and shrinking within our own focus.  Moreover the materiality of the work is quite exceptional: with four or five exceptions, all Spilliaert’s works are on paper. They are watercolours combined with gouache or pastels. When I first encountered them in the flesh during the mid-eighties at a retrospective of his work at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, I never thought for one minute that these works were non-painterly or merely illustrations. They were out of this world, given their translucence and the ease with which they were executed. Seeing them blew me away, as if I had entered a different zone. And of course there was this entity called the night, which I had a lot to do with in those days, recalling my own nightly walks on the beach whenever I visited Ostend. The constant realm of the seashore, which felt like the ultimate existential border. As I said, I was young, and probably still innocently driven to this type of infantile Romanticism. The one thing that comes through, though, is that Spilliaert suffered, just as I myself suffer to this day, from insomnia, which confuses the idea of what is close and distant, focusing on the inquest of the self. Think of the numerous self-portraits Spillieart painted; most of them, if not all, were painted at night-time with artificial lighting. Some of these self-portraits were often compared with the ones Munch made of himself as a young artist. But more than Munch, Spilliaert’s self-portraits seem to encompass the space, the setting in which they are materialised. His look upon himself is less tormented and more reclusive, as if detaching itself in order to reach a certain vanishing point, threatening the very existence of what could be taken or mistaken as real. This detached, almost haunted vision of the way Spilliaert saw or experienced people in outdoor spaces also projected itself onto the most banal of things, such as a bowl, empty bottles or the corner of a room. The reflection of a spot of light on the door of a wooden cupboard in his bedroom. Again, this way of framing the image is a film reminiscence, similar to the way Murnau in his early silent movies treats the relationship between the inner and the outside world. They remain interlocked, creating a sort of constant uncertainty and urgency. Something is bound to happen. One can smell the suspense of the moment; the element of fear becomes almost visible. All this amplifies Spilliaert’s singularity, his ownness and perception of himself as an outsider, which makes it very difficult to pinpoint him within a style or an “ism”. The works, especially the best ones, portray a certain ultimate silence or muteness; they seem stunned, poised for closer investigation. Which brings us to the use of colour in Spilliaert’s work. Rather than bright colours, he uses half-tones, which enables him to provide his imagery with a certain sense of temperature: it can be broodingly warm or freezing cold. The use of tonality also makes it far more difficult to recall the image accurately. Spilliaert didn’t want viewers to have a clear memory of his work. They were left with an insubstantial after-image. I’m convinced Spilliaert was fully conscious of the impact his work had on people, which makes him even more contemporary, since unlike his fellow artists of that period he encapsulated the way his work would be perceived before even creating it.

Although Spilliaert was appreciated by many of his contemporaries, his work never achieved a major breakthrough; it was never seen as groundbreaking, unlike that of his compatriot, living in the same city, James Ensor.

Ensor and Spilliaert can both be categorised as visionaries; they knew each other, but they were never really close. Ensor, of course, was far more explosive in his work, as well as in the flamboyance with which he conducted his daily life. Spilliaert was more understated, less pretentious or full of himself, more distrustful of the world around him. Having said that, both remain great artists, although in a sense they led parallel lives in the sleepy little coastal city of Ostend.

As for the social awareness of these two artists, it is often stated that the work of Ensor is far more political than that of Spilliaert: think of the Entry of Christ into Brussels. On the other hand, Spilliaert did a portrait of the corpse of Leopold II with the Belgian and Congolese flags. He also produced a portrait of  Carnegie, based on a newspaper photograph, after his death; so both Ensor and Spilliaert were very aware of the times they were living in . They were also both offspring of middle-class shopkeepers who made their living largely from tourism. In Ensor’s case his parents owned a souvenir shop, which he kept up until his death; Spilliaert’s parents had a perfume shop. Both were bourgeois, and both at a certain moment lost the power and urgency of their earlier work, to linger on in an state of expectancy. In the case of Ensor it was a matter of enduring or ignoring his incapacity through procrastination or denial; vegetating on the public acclaim he received, cherishing it in the loneliness of his own isolation. Spilliaert got married, had children, got a taste of a normal life, and happiness smoothed off the sharp edges. Nevertheless, Spilliaert’s work is still far too little known and unfamiliar to people. He has remained a sort of well-kept secret, known mostly among artists, much more than the mainstream; he can be compared with the awkward position Hammershoi occupies in Denmark. Most of the people I meet abroad have never heard of Spilliaert. Apart from a few pieces in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris and a handful of other foreign museums, most of his works remain in Belgium. I think it’s high time to raise this artist’s visibility and give him the importance and acclaim that his works so desperately need.