the pursuit Leon Spillaert Belgian symbolist painter of night and nocturnal painting

“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert

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“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert (1910)

 

The Belgian painter Leon Spilliaert was an artist preoccupied by nocturnal themes- images of disorientation, loneliness, exuberance, etc, populate his oeuvre. The Pursuit is a unique painting among his work for a number of reasons. I want to draw attention to how this piece is both exemplary of Spilliaert’s style and exceptional for its darker motif and suggestive title.

The first thing about this image worth noting is that it indeed fits well within Spilliaert’s area of visual interest: The span of the road leading up to the bridge, the strange and elongated perspective, the use of a very narrow range of color yet a broad range of value (i.e. gradient of tone from light to dark), the peculiar and enchanting quality of evening/night-time light, and the effect of light on moving water are all classic motifs among his body of work. The eery effect of the perspective of the image, for example, fits in with both his fascination with exaggerated expanses of bare space and his taste for creating disorientation or discomfort. The two images below- Moon and Light and Dyke and Beach– illustrate his penchant for these themes, yet The Pursuit seems to bring them together in the same space.

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“Moon and Light,” Leon Spilliaert (1909)

 

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“Dyke and Beach,” Leon Spilliaert (1907)

What sets The Pursuit apart from much of his work is that while Spilliaert was typically content with a suggestion of uneasiness, fear, loneliness, and even menace in his works, both his use of the title “pursuit” and his inclusion of two figures chasing each other is more overtly assertive about the tension in the image. For example, Moon and Light might be seen as an expression of vertigo. At the same time, it might merely be a feeling of awe at a unique alignment of perspectival elements and colors.

In keeping with Spilliaert’s character as an artist, even with the suggestion of a chase through the night in a haunting and disconcerting space, the viewer is not certain what kind of pursuit is happening: it could be friends leaving the bar, drunkenly joking with each other; it could be unsupervised children playing in the twilight hour, bored as they wait for their supper; or it could be as sinister as a robber and his victim. As I’ve written before of Spilliaert in my article on his painting Nightthe playfulness with his audience about whether his work is brooding or buoyant elevates his work out of what might otherwise be moody and macabre into a unique space that is uncertain and requires inference and repeated engagement by the viewer to this day.

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Felicien Rops Death at the Ball

Felicien Rops: “Death at the Ball”

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Félicien Rops, the Belgian printmaker and illustrator, had an undeniable connection to decadence. In particular, that decadence which emphasized decay of the moral order of the relatively young Bourgeoisie in Europe was something Rops reveled in. One must look no further than his broad portfolio of etchings and lithographs which celebrates a remarkably De Sadeian eroticism to confirm this. In 1864, he became personally acquainted with the paragon of decadence Charles Baudelaire. The painting Death at the Ball (1865) was likely a product of that encounter, and of the familiarity with Baudelaire’s works that ensued.

Death at the Ball appears to reference Baudelaire’s poem Danse Macabre, wherein death appears as a beautiful woman who manages to dupe the young rakes of society into desiring her. Alternatively, men perhaps mistake a young woman for life and desire her as an escape hatch from the cycle of mortality, which is an inherently flawed notion given that a young woman is equally mortal as a gentleman. In any case, this ushers in the standard analysis that Death at the Ball is about the Femme Fatale archetype.

So much has been written about the Femme Fatale in both Rops and the broader Fin de Siecle culture of Europe that it would be pointless for me to rehash it here. The connection is so flagrant, the viewer who is acquainted with this archetype might feel the temptation to take exegesis of this image no further. That impulse would be premature.

The image in question is not literally an “illustration” of Baudelaire’s Danse Macabre– it features its own title and creates its own imagery. It would be short-sighted to rely too much on the text of Baudelaire’s poem for insight into this work of Rops. Nonetheless, a particular stanza from that poem might give the viewer some insight into the heart of the image. Coincidence or no, there appears a kinship of spirit (starting with line 35):

Who of these mortal hearts can grasp the joke?

The charms of horror only suit the strong!

In short, the joke is on us as much as it is on the unwitting suitor of death in both the poem and the image. What’s really at issue here is that mortality is itself a joke on its possessors that is so cruel by nature, only the strongest mortals can laugh in the face of it. The comedy of the skeletal Femme in Death at the Ball is suggested by the exaggeration of the gesture of the skeleton- apparently an intentional dance step- and the hapless condition of the dance partner, who is lyrically obscured in the image. This indicates that he is not the focus of the image, that he is perhaps somewhat anonymous and could be exchangeable for any other male partner, and that the two figures are less than intimate. They are not showing each other their true natures.

Much has also been made of Rops’ sense of humor. Images such as The Ecstasy of St. Theresa– where ecstasy is comically suggested to have a profane nature as she graphically pleasures herself- and L’Incantation– where a man of the cloth projects the image of a nude female only to gaze at her with desire- should indicate to us that Rops was persistently amused by the fallibility of man. His amusement at man’s failings extended to an amusement at death and mortality. He produced many more images of a similar theme to Death at the Ball which are more explicitly comical, as conveyed by the use of the instruments of caricature and exaggeration.

In light of the implied humor of this image, it would be unfair to the painter Rops to stop short and name this an image of pure, sincere, hand-wringing decadence and fear of femininity. There were certainly many artists (literary and visual) in the Fin de Siecle who were obviously guilty of this. Critics who does so with Death at the Ball may find themselves in the position of the skeleton’s unwitting counterpart in the scene here depicted- unable to recognize and enjoy a humor that presumed only those willing and able to confront the comedy of their own mortal condition could laugh along.

Leon Spilliaert Nuit (Night)

Leon Spilliaert: “Night”

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Leon Spilliaert, a largely self-taught artist from Ostend, Belgium, was a life-long Symbolist and an artist fully engaged with his environment. Images of the Ocean, the landscape, and the isolation of his corner of the world are frequent subjects of his work. His art often expresses skepticism towards Industrialization and the idealization of Reason that was influential in his time, and he spent much of his time illustrating mystical and disturbing novels, stories, and music that rebelled against the Bourgeois morality of Fin de Siecle Europe. For example, he was an early champion of Leautremont’s book The Song of Maldoror– a book preoccupied with the most severe evils its author could conjure.

Images of ghostly landscapes that appear both beautiful and haunted figure largely in Spilliaert’s oeuvre. He produced many pictures of beaches in particular that are perhaps outside the purview of the “seascape”- it is the beach that is visible, the sea is often merely implied or presumed to exist by the viewer because it has been called a “beach.” The long stretch of light across empty land from solitary sources of illumination often imply the medium of a damp surface prone to “shininess” such as sand on a beach or concrete or wood planks in the rain (a paved boardwalk by the sea, for example). What is always truly at issue is the feeling of an empty stretch ahead of the viewer, the loneliness of the sources of light, and the sensation of an obscuring force (fog, clouds, sea-mist, darkness).

Night stands out as a successful marriage of many of Spilliaert’s favorite motifs (beach, night, distant lamps, a lone figure, etc.) into one image paired with a structure that is unique to this piece- a row of columns. This inclusion of the arcade may offer a window into the meaning of the symbol of the beach.

In Night, a character with a tall hat and a long coat or jacket is either standing or walking in a manner that appears languid on the edge of a beach, skirting an empty structure fenced with columns. It is significant that the figure is not within the columns- he paces outside of them. He does not trace the measured comfort of the arcade’s confines, removed from confrontation with nature. The column’s origins in Greek and Roman civilization, and the return to wide usage of the column by those who hoped to revive something of the spirit of antique civilization, suggest a grounding in reason, observation, mathematics, and logic that Spilliaert and his fellow Symbolists were in open rebellion against.

Outside of the line of columns that appears to cover a great distance, the walker on the beach chooses to face the staggering infinity of the Sea with the over-hang of fog and an eerie, yellow-grey light. The sparseness of lights highlights the diminutive stature of things in the face of the open expanses before them. The character faces the suggestion that the structures of Reason seem potentially irrelevant against the vastness of space. Mortality and its products are placed in their proper context- small, lonely, and difficult to discern the underlying raison d’etre. The brave soul who elects to step outside the constructs of Reason and become exposed to the humiliation of a profoundly vast expanse before him is the Symbolist and the revolutionary against the Enlightenment himself.

Further, that this figure stretches his arm out in a gesture that might suggest various things- amusement, gaiety, a feeling of being overwhelmed, glorification, or a gesture of dismissal- helps this image of the beach walker transcend the darker side of Nihilism: we can imagine the solitary figure to be happy. We can imagine this figure to be Spilliaert himself, inspired by this vision rather than recoiled from the confrontation with enormity. In this way, Night may be the most hopeful image in Spilliaert’s repertoire. The inherent mortal comedy of such an interpretation might place the image somewhat nearer to artists like James Ensor on the continuum of Belgian art than he usually finds himself. Ensor was constantly laughing at the fallibility and foibles of his fellow man- it is the foundation of his art.

It is possible to approach this image with a light heart and sympathy with its subject (in contrast to some of Spilliaert’s imagery which is sometimes described as “spooky,” “unnerving,” or inspiring vertigo). Perhaps Night‘s lone figure might find a friend in Albert Camus’ Sisyphus when Camus asks us to ascribe joy and contentment to the man faced with an infinity of inherently pointless and repetitive experience (he is condemned to roll a rock up a hill over and over for the rest of time). The viewer of Night is invited to step outside the confines of Reason and look ahead in wonder at the implied infinity, despite the solitude and ephemeral nature of the isolated lights that populate the edge of the Sea.