Léon Spilliaert, “Woman at the Shoreline” (1910), Indian ink, colored pencil and pastel on paper, 49 x 60 cm (Private collection, photo © Cedric Verhelst)

Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882

By day, Ostend, the coastal city in Belgium that once served as a resort for the Belgian royal family, is bustling with activity, attracting tourists from nearby Brussels and across the English Channel from Dover. At night, however, the beaches and promenade are empty and the remote sea seems to stretch out infinitely.

In the work on paper “Seascape Seen from Mariakerke” (1909) by Ostend painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946), thin washes of India ink and colored pencil form a vast nocturnal sea that consumes almost the entire space, darkening from silvery gray to deep purplish black. The horizontal flow of the brushstrokes evokes softly undulating waves. A fine white line stretching across the page articulates a distant horizon; above, a veil of clouds gathers in the narrow strip of sky.

Léon Spilliaert, “Seascape Seen from Mariakerke” (1909), Indian ink wash, brush and colored pencil on paper, 47.7 × 71.1 cm. Private collection (Photo: © Daniël De Kievith)

The painting calls to mind the color fields Rothko would produce four decades later, yet Spilliaert comes to abstraction from a different angle, by depicting the world around him at its most enigmatic. His seascape echoes the closing line of Nietzsche’s above aphorism: “Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom — and there is no longer any ‘land.’”

“Seascape Seen from Mariakerke” reveals the natural world as at once plainly itself and enveloped in mystery. Spilliaert had a similar view of Ostend. He spent hours wandering the streets and shoreline in the middle of the night, kept up by insomnia exacerbated by chronic ulcers. There are suggestions in his work, however, that he found some comfort in the solitude — for instance, in “Promenade, Light Reflections” (1908), “Promenade and Lighthouse” (1908), and “Moonlight and Lights” (ca. 1909), with their illuminated beacons. He saw his unpeopled Ostend as a kind of liminal space between the outside and his interior world. In a 1920 letter, he wrote of the city, “I am living in a real phantasmagoria […] all around me dreams and mirages.”

This letter is quoted in the catalogue for the exhibition Léon Spilliaert at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the artist’s first solo museum show in the UK. (Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946): Light and Solitude is scheduled for the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, October 13, 2020-January 10, 2021.) In the same essay, Noémie Goldman and co-curator Anne Adriaens-Pannier write: “Spilliaert came to realize that Ostend could become a dream […] Reality — his living, breathing home town — became fantasy. The environment he inhabited day to day became an imaginary vision to be explored.”

Léon Spilliaert, “Flasks” (1909), Indian ink wash, brush and pen on paper, 48.6 × 63.5 cm (Private collection)

Spilliaert was distinctive in his time for working primarily in a combination of India ink, Conte crayon, watercolor, and pencil or charcoal; the resulting translucency imbues the subject matter with a spectral quality. In “Flasks” (1909), vertical streaks of light pierce through bulbous glass perfume bottles aligned on a ledge, awash in silvery grays — references to the perfumery run by Spilliaert’s parents. The slight angle of the ledge and de-centered black window behind the bottles subtly unbalance the composition, invoking the uncanny in the ordinary.

More fanciful than “Flasks,” “The Night” (1908) is an early-morning waking dream. Under the diffuse light of dawn, a central silhouette in a top hat and overcoat walks along the promenade. Two lamps on the pier echo the shadowy figure, their reflections cutting thin swaths of white light through the gray of the walkway. Against the openness of the sky and sea on the left, the right half of the picture plane is weighted by the heavy columns of the Royal Galleries.

The pale sky and streetlights in “The Night” emphasize the figure as an absence that seems to dissolve into the watery pigment, rather than a presence — a strategy the artist applied to other paintings with small, often silhouetted, figures in a vast landscape, as well as some of his many evocative self-portraits (in particular, “The Silhouette of the Artist,” 1907). With his silhouettes and shadows, Spilliaert invites viewers to project themselves into his hallucinatory world, almost as if fitting into a cut-out.

Léon Spilliaert, “The Silhouette of the Artist” (1907) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

While “The Night,” like “Seascape Seen from Mariakerke,” contemplates solitude, Spilliaert’s sea and streets are rarely truly empty. Lights, reflections, and shadows seem to bear silent witness, accompanying the artist’s implied presence (the walking figure in “The Night” positions Spilliaert as both the subject, a nighttime stroller, and an observer).

For a painter of darkness, otherworldly light permeates his works. In “Hofstraat, Ostend” (1908), the white glow of a distant streetlamp penetrates a faint shaft of light wedged between two imposing buildings, where a deserted street meets the dusky sky.

“The Night” and “Hofstraat, Ostend” both incorporate distant vanishing points and starkly converging sight lines. Around the same time, Spilliaert began to experiment with more extreme perspectives and sharp geometries. At their most striking, these works allude to psychological states, as with “Vertigo” (1908), in which he articulates a steep spiral of steps as alternating bands of shadow and light jutting out toward the viewer. A silhouetted woman near the top establishes the monumental scale and precariousness of the precipice, as her gossamer veil flails above a chasm.

Léon Spilliaert, “Hofstraat, Ostend” (1908), gouache, watercolor and pastel on paper, 63 × 48.5 cm (Private collection, image courtesy Francis Maere Fine Arts, Ghent, photo © Cedric Verhelst)

Spilliaert’s inventive visuals defy easy categorization. As some critics have observed, “Vertigo” and similar works — for instance, “The Royal Galleries at Ostend” (1908), with its dramatically receding columns — prefigure the estranged landscapes that Giorgio de Chirico produced less than a decade later, while his attention to existential and psychological states nods to the Symbolists. His works retain traces of artists he had studied or seen, but his aesthetic was largely a reflection of his private world, making it both intimate and original.

“Woman at the Shoreline” (1910) condenses many of Spilliaert’s themes and formal strategies into a single visionary image. The woman, seen from the back in a funereal black dress and broad hat, stands at the edge of a peninsula in an alien seascape, surrounded by swirling blue waters. The style recalls the color-block compositions of Les Nabis.

Léon Spilliaert, “Vertigo” (1908) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet its dizzying perspective and all-over patterning have affinities with the work of outsider artists (which, with the 1922 publication of Hans Prinzhorn’s landmark Art of the Mentally Ill, became a basis for much modern art in the 1920s). The water’s constant multidirectional motion reflects the perpetual passage of time, while the figure’s portrayal as virtually a void, barely grounded within the seascape, suggests the transience of life in the face of nature’s eternal flux, and questions the centrality humankind grants itself.

In his catalogue essay “Walking Alone: Spilliaert and the Night,” Adrian Locke, co-curator of the Royal Academy exhibition, notes that Spilliaert’s admiration for Nietzsche may have inspired the former “to seek clarity of thought and vision through perambulation”; the artist and the philosopher both took long walks — Spilliaert at night and Nietzsche through much of the daytime — to distract from their physical ailments and probe their thoughts. It was on one such walk in Sils Maria, Switzerland, in 1881 that Nietzsche came upon the boulder that famously led to his revelation of the “Eternal Return,” his unfinished theory of existence as a recurring cycle.

Because Spilliaert spent most of his life with Ostend’s seashore, the sea could be considered his inspiration. But perhaps it is better seen as a revelation, as the spark that ignited him to reconsider his place in the world and, unmoored from the “freedom” of land, forge a boundless artistic vision.

Léon Spilliaert, “Dike at night. Reflected lights” (1908), Indian ink wash, pen and colored pencil on paper, 48 x 39.4 cm (Musée D’Orsay, photo © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt)

Léon Spilliaert continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, England) through September 20. The exhibition was organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with the Musée d‘Orsay, Paris, and co-curated by Anne Adriaens-Pannier and Adrian Locke.

Natalie Haddad is Reviews Editor at Hyperallergic and an art writer. She received her PhD in Art History, Theory and Criticism at the University of California San Diego. Her research focuses on World War...