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

“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert

“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.

“Moon and Light,” Leon Spilliaert (1909)


“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.


Précis of a Critical Approach to Max Ernst

Max Ernst, German pioneer of Dada and Surrealism, was an accomplished creator of new imageries and atmospheres. This is in no small part owing to his virulent aesthetic iconoclasm and technical innovation as an artist. His career was so marked by his ranking in the Surrealist nomenclature and lust for novelty that much of what is said about Ernst centers on these factors. I hope, in my approach to Ernst’s work, to take a different direction in focusing on close readings of the specific narratives in his individual works.

So many authors have effectively covered the tabloidism of Ernst’s life and gestalt that I will leave that territory to them. I could say the same of another critical hobby-horse of mine; the literary works of Gabriele D’annunzio, the larger than life poet and author of early 20th century Italy. He, too, is perhaps best known for the outlandish stories and gossip around his creative life. Even his most quintessentially Modernist work- Notturno- is perhaps best known in the English speaking world for having been authored on thin bands of paper by a hallucinatory and partially blind D’annunzio after a plane accident. It’s true lyrical innovations are often forgotten.

Andre Breton described Paolo Uccello as an early Surrealist or “Pre-Surrealist” for sharing the same spirit of experimentation, tolerance of disquieting imagery, oneiric guidance, and thematic preoccupations as the Surrealists. My own critical work has centered around a re-Modernist critique of the Symbolist era. Much like Breton’s fascination with Uccello (a fascination I have shared since childhood), I include Ernst in my critical purview as an artist of evocation. He, as the Symbolists did, experienced intriguing metaphysical states and realms and disocculted them. While I would not go so far as Breton to suggest Ernst was a “Late Symbolist,” I will apply every approach that I have used with the Symbolists to his works.

Sporadically (I wish that it were otherwise, dear reader, but it is still the busy season of work for me), critical essays will show up here on Coup de Des about Max Ernst fairly soon. I am very much looking forward to this, and I hope you are as well.




Redon: Primitive Man (The Hunter)

Odilon Redon: “Primitive Man (The Hunter)”


Odilon Redon is known as a prolific and influential artist in the Symbolist movement in visual arts that arose in opposition to the Realists and the Impressionists of the Fin De Siecle (Turn of the 20th Century). He is rarely discussed remote from broader Symbolist tendencies- all texts that I have encountered on Redon have given mention of his involvement in the movement. Perhaps this is due to his virtuosity and skill, which few have questioned, that lends implied validity to the broader movement. It is also likely that Redon managed to pull together many of the disparate threads of the movement into one body of work which was compelled by a continuity of spirit and approach, which is not true of all of the Symbolists.

It is no simple task to define “Symbolism” as it represented such a breadth of technique, approach, and purpose that the idiosyncrasies of the participating artists often seem dissimilar to those who seek to demarcate the movement. Some of the Symbolists employed relentless comedy and jest, such as the Belgian artists James Ensor and Felicien Rops. Others were known for their intense sincerity that occasionally invited criticism as “self-indulgent” and “naïve,” like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Jean Delville. Redon’s contribution to and place in the world of art centers around his response via illustration to a given “symbol” or “idea,” and this could be said of the broader body of works that could be called “Symbolist.”

Over the span of Redon’s career, he addressed many such symbols and a few of them he revisited many times. There are many renderings of The Birth of Venus, The Sphinx, Silence, Roger and Angelica, etc. This commends the implied breadth of possible meanings to any one of these symbolic images, and tells us something of the Symbolist impulse itself. He became known for his illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe, his vibrantly colorful depictions of allegories and mythology, his invention of new metaphors and allegories, his portraits, and even a number of still life paintings executed in pastel. Though his repertoire was intensely varied and broad, one thing that characterizes Redon’s work is the play between subtlety and observational rendering versus bold, purposeful abstraction which conveys meaning and interpretation of the theme at hand. An example that demonstrates this quality is the various images of Apollo with his chariot: the horses often display a convincing structure of musculature, shading, and hue while surrounded by wide ranges of expression in color and form of clouds, insects, landscapes, and even Apollo himself that many have described as “fanciful,” “visionary,” and “lyrical.” In any case, all of the elements present in Redon’s works are symbolic.

In L’homme Primitif (Le Chasseur), that is Primitive Man (The Hunter), Redon reaches beyond the realm of civilization that often preoccupies him. Subjects of Redon are often placed on a continuum of relationship to civilization, whether that be creative of civilization (images of the Virgin Mary, Apollo, Venus, etc.), naïve of civilization (depictions of fallen angels, Satan, the cyclops Polyphemus), or seeking to withdraw from it (Closed Eyes, The Young Buddha, and a number of Centaur images might be interpreted as such). Man is shown here as naked of the garb of wisdom as seen in his renderings of St. Sebastian, The Crown, Beatrix, etc., where the robes of civilization are connected with the elegancies of the mind (piety, genius, lyricism, inspiration, etc.). In particular, those compositions such as The Crown that feature Greco Roman style of dress evoke a majesty of thought and character.

Redon’s Primitive Man walks upright with his head held straight. This contrasts the bow of the head- slight or pronounced- seen in such works as Teresa de Avila, Parsifal, St. John, to name a few of a great many, where the downward tilt of the head is associated with lyrical pensiveness and introspection. The reflection that is often the true subject of many of Redon’s images is not the purpose of Primitive Man.

The composition of Primitive Man is striking for the intense contrast of man- utterly black from head to toe and displaying scant contrast besides his definition against negative space- versus the florid environment he navigates. The faces of the rocks he passes are illuminated by light and shadowed in lilac, the sky is bright yellow transitioning to a surprising shade of light aqua-green. This suggests that our subject (man) is uniquely unified and monolithic. He is compelled forward, fully integrated by a singularness that could be interpreted as will. Man’s will to survive by the humble and uncertain means of the hunt gives him harmony of purpose, as dark as that may cast him against his surroundings.

As sparse as the composition is, the inclusion of an arrow at the heels of the man is significant. It underscores the parenthetical title of the piece- The Hunter. The subject is not merely a man at liberty. He has a reason to be where he is and a task to complete. He walks past the arrow, suggesting he has perhaps hit his mark and is approaching his wounded prey out of the frame of the image. Maybe he has a great distance to cover and is preoccupied by his trajectory. For some reason he has not stopped to pick up his instrument, and this suggests once again that it is the meeting of will and purpose that is really being examined in this composition.

To conclude that this image of Redon’s later oeuvre is a step outside of his typical modes would be fair. Some of the elements of compositions of spiritual paragons such as Percival (the famous Grail Knight), Christ, and the Buddha are present in this image- namely, the emotive quality of a saturated sky and the illustration of rocks and hills with whites and purples- but their subtleties and nuances are not. The rawness and air of confrontation is unique to Primitive Man. Perhaps this composition is unfinished, merely a study, as some critics have suggested. This shouldn’t detract from the provocative symbolism of this piece even if it is true: Redon explores the starkness of man put to a purpose against the abundance of life and color that surrounds him with such a direct and bold hand, this piece will always be remarkable.