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Every year, at the end of February, the focus of professional cycling shifts from the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean to the grey austerity of Flanders. It is a shock to the system – physically for the riders, and aesthetically for television viewers. Much has been written about the landscape of Flanders and its classic bicycle races. We are used to the low skies, cobbled lanes between meadows, small villages. Flanders is very nearly becoming a cliché. The Flemish coastline has plenty of cycling connections too, but somehow it is less familiar. On a warm summer’s day towns like De Panne and Oostende look like idyllic holiday locations; the rest of the year they just seem deserted and pointless, as if their whole existence is only geared around those few days of sunshine.
Léon Spilliaert (1881 – 1946) knew that coastline intimately, in all conditions. Born in Oostende, Spilliaert was a painter from childhood, self-taught, a constant sketcher and doodler. The son of a perfumer, Spilliaert was sickly and introverted during his youth. He developed a distinctive painting style influenced by French Symbolist Odilon Redon and at the age of 21 moved to Brussels to design book covers for a publisher of Symbolist writing. As the name implies, Symbolism was an artistic movement (based principally in Belgium and France) that sought to get away from the naturalism and realism that characterised the end of the 19th century. Gothic masters Edgar Allan Poe and Friedrich Nietzsche were among Spilliaert’s favourite writers.
Spilliaert’s version of Symbolism involves quiet, strange and alienating visions of Oostende and the Belgian countryside. He strips away nature, replacing it mysterious empty space. In his paintings lone figures are swamped in darkness. Sometimes his focus moves in on the characters to reveal madness. This is not the stuff of seaside picture postcards. He often walked alone at night because of insomnia and discomfort from stomach ulcers. In those nocturnal journeys he had his hometown to himself, often following the same route over and over. He was no flaneur, in the romantic urban sense of the word, merely a man walking to think and look and dream. He dwelled on his solitude and from those perambulations emerged atmospheric pictures like Hofstraat, Ostend (1908) and Seascape (1905).
Alongside the landscapes were a series of ghostly, unnerving self-portraits. Though a young man, Spilliaert’s poor health brought a sense of mortality to these paintings. Dark interiors, pale skin, blank eyes – the blackness is redolent of Edvard Munch. A Joy Division soundtrack would be appropriate.
Without the constraints of a formal education in painting, Spilliaert was free to experiment with technique. He rarely used oils, preferring to blend watercolours with ink, gouache, crayon and pastel. Through the subtle balancing of these media he could produce scintillating, uncanny effects. The tragedy of his obscurity (he did not have an exhibition in Ostend until he was over 40 and had to wait a further 20 years for a major show in Brussels) is accentuated when you consider that his paintings come to life when viewed in person, in a well-lit gallery.
In March 2020 London’s Royal Academy put on a major retrospective of Léon Spilliaert’s work, showcasing 80 paintings and drawings pulled from collections around the world. Shortly after it opened London, like the rest of the world, went into lockdown. The streets were empty. Sickness and fear were pervasive. Somewhere, Spilliaert’s ghost was allowing himself a wry smile.