So Lonely - Léon Spilliaert's mysterious paintings are redolent of melancholy and solitude. Unregarded in his own lifetime, he is the perfect artist for our times, says Adrian Locke
LÉON SPILLIAERT (1881-1946) Le phare d'Ostende vu de l'estacade la nuit; Het nachtzicht op de vuurtoren van Oostende vanaf de pier (Executed in Ostend circa 1907)

Those familiar with the work of Léon Spilliaert will instantly recognise his uncanny ability to use absence to signal presence. His dark, brooding visions of the North Sea and Ostend, the town where he was born and grew up, transport you there – leaving a strong taste of the sea on your lips and the feel of the wind driving through your hair. For those to whom he is currently an unknown quantity, you are increasingly likely to encounter his work, with his reputation growing because his images still resonate today. Haunting, atmospheric, mysterious, introspective, lonesome – these are just some of the words that come to mind when describing Spilliaert's art. Dark and fathomless, his images connect to disaffected youth and those dealing with the individual fears of isolation, solitude and loneliness in the modern bustling world.

As Mark Twain once wrote, the worst type of loneliness is not to be comfortable with oneself. If aloneness starts within, Spilliaert conveys brilliantly the myriad manner in which such feelings prey on one's mind and undermine self-confidence. His remarkable ability to capture a moment – quite unlike the freeze-frame of a photograph – transmits a sense of uncertainty, leaving the viewer not just to ponder what they are seeing, but attempting to comprehend what came before and, in other cases, to foretell what comes next. The serenity of the image is displaced, its beauty and technical mastery tinged with a sense of loss, of melancholy, of isolation. These images appear to chronicle Spilliaert's life, but there is no accompanying text to refer to, to help navigate that particular narrative. The secret of his work is the mystery: tantalising, tangible but somehow still undefined.

Above: An obsession with oceans: Spilliaert's The Shipwrecked (1926)

A number of facts are known. Léon Spilliaert was born in Ostend on the North Sea coast of Belgium on 28 July 1881, the eldest child of Léonard-Hubert, owner of a successful perfumery (My Father's Workshop, 1907) and a hair salon (where one of his brothers worked), and Léonie (née Jonckheere), who ran the Spilliaert household on Kapellestraat 2. Thanks to the patronage of the Belgian royal family, particularly Leopold II, Ostend had transformed from a small fishing port into a thriving belle époque seaside resort known as the 'Queen of Beaches'. Regular rail connections to Brussels and ferry crossings to Dover made it a popular and fashionable resort, complete with grand hotels, a casino, a racecourse and a promenade on which was situated the Royal Villa. Nevertheless, Ostend is a town of two halves. During the harsh winter months, it seems to contract – the vibrant crowds that throng the beach and promenade throughout the summer vanish.

Above: My Father's Workshop (1907): Spilliaert's father, Léonard- Hubert, was a perfumier

Spilliaert was a self-taught artist, having abandoned formal art education due to ill health. He would continue to suffer from stomach ailments throughout his life. His two passions were his art and literature. An avid reader, Spilliaert was particularly drawn to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Edgar Allan Poe. It was wonderful then that, in 1902, he was engaged by the successful Brussels publisher Edmond Deman to illustrate books by French and Belgian Symbolist writers including Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Émile Verhaeren. Deman, who had previously commissioned Édouard Manet and Odilon Redon to illustrate his publications, would be a great influence on the young artist.

Two years later, Spilliaert – armed with a letter of introduction from Deman – travelled to Saint-Cloud on the outskirts of Paris to meet Verhaeren. They struck up an enduring friendship and, over time, Verhaeren introduced Spilliaert to numerous artistic and literary figures, including the Austrian author Stefan Zweig and the Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynck. During these years, literary themes dominated Spilliaert's work. However, he never felt settled in Paris and, after a few months, returned to the family home in Ostend.

Due to his health problems, Spilliaert suffered from insomnia. As a means of tackling his sleeplessness, he strolled through the empty streets and along the deserted promenade late at night. Walking distracted him from the physical discomfort of his stomach ailments and gave him space to tackle his existential thoughts. Spilliaert's lack of critical (as well as financial) success also preyed on his mind. On his return from these walks, he would sit down in the house and, in the dead of night, create works from memory, with his chosen media – Indian ink wash, watercolour, gouache, charcoal, pencil, pen and Conté crayon – his drawing board propped on a bentwood chair or on his lap. Often responding to the diffused or reflected light of the streetlights, the dampness of the streets and pavements, or moonlight over the dark, brooding sea, Spilliaert created a powerful sequence of atmospheric images that capture the stillness of his home town at night (The Lighthouse of Ostend seen from the Promenade at Night, 1907, and Lights Reflected on the Promenade at Night, 1907). He was very experimental, too, introducing highly unusual perspectives and bold geometries into his work (Promenade and Casino of Ostend, 1907). These remarkable viewpoints challenged conventional representations of the town, encouraging viewers to look afresh at once familiar features. Dynamic angles created paths leading nowhere that seemed to disappear in the distance. These disconcerting images perhaps refer subconsciously to his own profound sense of solitude and loneliness. Among some of Spilliaert's best known and most admired works from this period are a number of self- portraits. He would continue to depict himself throughout his life (Self-Portrait, 1927). Those that he produced over the two-year period from 1907 to 1908, when he was in his mid-20s, retain their extraordinary intensity. Still living with his parents and continuing to suffer from ill health, these unnerving reflections capture an unsettled young man battling with his physical and mental well-being.

Above: Promenade and Casino of Ostend (1909) – Spilliaert obsessively revisited the seafront in his work

The North Sea was a source of endless fascination for Spilliaert. In 1908, he rented an attic studio on the Visserskaai, with commanding views over the bustling port and navigation channel below (The Navigation Channel with Fishing Boats, 1909). With its wide beach, lighthouse, grand promenade, fishing industry and dramatic, ever-changing skies, Ostend inspired him and provided him with an infinite amount of source material. His solitary night-time walks through the familiar streets and along the seafront both calmed and enthused him.

In December 1916, Spilliaert married Rachel Vergison and the following March, when Ostend was occupied by the forces of the German Empire, they tried unsuccessfully to move to Geneva and join the Pacifist movement led by French writer Romain Rolland. With little money and expecting a child, they decided to settle instead in Brussels, where their daughter Madeleine was born in November 1917. From that time on, they oscillated between Brussels and Ostend, and Spilliaert's work noticeably changed. His palette became more colourful and his work shook off that characteristic sense of loneliness and melancholy (Three Figures on the Promenade, c.1920, and Le Château d'Eau, 1922). When in Brussels, he enjoyed walking alone among the ancient beech and oak trees in the nearby Fôret de Soignes (Sonian Forest); it acted, in some ways, as a substitute for the North Sea, which remained his favourite subject.

Above: Sea Wall, Light Reflections (1908) demonstrates Spilliaert's mastery of subdued light effects

Spilliaert is an artist for our time. His once unfashionable subjects – the self, solitude, insomnia – are better understood and much more accepted. Outside literature, few have captured the essence of human fragility better than this once peripheral artist, whose work deserves to be more widely appreciated.

Dr Adrian Locke is the co-curator of an exhibition of Léon Spilliaert's works at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London SW1. The exhibition runs until 25 May, admission £12.


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