Léon Spilliaert – The Absinthe Drinker and Other Paintings

25 Nov

Léon Spilliaert, The Absinthe Drinker (La Buveuse d’Absinthe), 1907

I have felt drawn to Léon Spilliaert’s dark, disturbing and nightmarish paintings for years now, but I always found them just a tad too disturbing to write about. I mean, just look into the eyes of the woman in the painting “The Absinthe Drinker”; two dark abysses, her pupils swirling rivers of dark, haunting absinthe laced dreams. If you look into them long enough she will suck you into her nocturnal world of nightmares and lost hopes. The woman and the space around her are both painted in the same shades of black and midnight blue, as if the woman is inseparable from the space that she resides in. Her silhouette, with the hat, flowing hair, dress and even necklace bring to mind the lovely Edwardian photographs and other portraits from that time, but Spilliaert’s absinthe drinker lives not in Edwardian world but in her own dark fantasy. Big crazy eyes, thin lips pressed together, almost comically large and dark circles around her eyes, her flesh morbidly pale; she sees something that we cannot see and the glass of absinthe hides the secret.

Léon Spilliaert was born in the Belgian coastal town of Ostend, on the 28 July 1881. Spilliaert, a reclusive child with frail health grew up into an equally sickly and reclusive young man who took solace in the world of art. Even in childhood he showed a love of doodling and drawing and this love grew into real painting. Through art his imagination flourished. Interestingly, the town of Ostend gave the art world another amazing painter; James Ensor. Skeletons that pop up in almost all of Ensor’s paintings are at once creepy and comical. Both Ensor and Spilliaert’s art have an element of eerieness, it must be something in the Ostend air. The two painters, despite the generational gap between them, actually became friends and connected over their art endeavors. If I had to chose, I would chose Ensor’s art as my favourite, but Spilliaert’s artworks are something that I gaze at half in awe and half in fear. A strange chill goes down my spine when I get immersed in his dark world.

Leon Spilliaert, Vertigo, 1908

Painting “Vertigo” shows a figure of a woman shrouded in black, her long gauzy black scarf dancing in the wind. The figure is painted in such a nightmarish way that it could also be the figure of death itself. The space around the woman, dark, empty and isolate, oozes an equally nightmarish vibe. It’s only the woman and the wind on the stairs. I can imagine her climbing up the stairs and stopping for a moment only to look into the dark abyss bellow. The contrast between the tread and the riser of the stairs is sharp and precise. The colour scheme and sharp contrats makes me think of the German Expressionist cinema. The wind as a motif appears again in the painting “The Gust of Wind” from 1904. Again, we have a figure of a woman dressed in black, save for her white petticoat revealed by the gust of the wind from the title. Her black hair and her black dress are both moving in the wind and her face is a grimace; a scream or a black hole ready to swallow you whole. She is leaning with her back on the rails behind her and the space around her is, again, devoid of all details, just an empty, isolated landscape with a beach and the sea in the background. No seagull in the sky, no passers by, no clouds… There is definitely something heavy and unsettling about these paintings which brings to mind the paintings of Munch who, interestingly, also used seascape as a background in his paintings of lonely people.

The seascape of Ostend was particularly inspiring for Spilliaert and he enjoyed strolling there at night, under the light of the street lamps. The wind, the sand, the emptiness of a beach; these natural elements are the core of his paintings where the empty space becomes a metaphore for the isolation of a human existence. In all his paintings, the figures are all alone in a big landscape, which also makes me think of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In Friedrich’s landscapes the figures appear melancholy and lonely and the seascape or other landscape around them is painted in soft, dusky colours; blues, purples, yellows, but in Spilliaert’s art the landscape and its emptiness takes a darker, deeper shade. The female figures in Spilliaert’s art are not only melancholy and sad, but also very disturbing to look at, they truly do appear as something that inhibits nightmares; frail, thin, dressed in all black, painted in a stylised way, their faces hidden. The landscape around them is painted in darker colours and there are no romance or dreams in it.

Leon Spilliaert, The Gust of Wind, 1904

Still, this dark phase of Spilliaert’s art which was inspired by the art of Edvard Munch and Fernand Khnopff, and the writings of Nietzsche and Lautremont, withered like a picked flower after his marriage in 1916. He continued creating art, mostly illustrations and landscapes which are less known, but not with the same ardour and anguish. Perhaps the happiness of marriage and family life finally fulfilled him, but it is sad in the art context. I almost wished he spent his life in misery but continued creating wonderful art. One cannot have it all… or?

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5 Responses to “Léon Spilliaert – The Absinthe Drinker and Other Paintings”

  1. marinaelphick 25th Nov 2022 at 10:36 pm #

    Fascinating artist and work, unknown to me but reminds me of Edvard Munch in mood, thanks 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex Radeff 26th Nov 2022 at 12:11 pm #

    Thank you for introducing me to these paintings by Léon Spilliaert. In the Vertigo painting, the scarf in the wind looks like smoke coming from the woman’s body. Her stance is like she is almost burning alive defiantly in front of you. The Gust of Wind and Absinthe Drinker really conjure up scenes of addiction and the underworld. Very powerful images.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 26th Nov 2022 at 1:47 pm #

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the paintings, they are really powerful, that is why I hesitated writing about them for years now.

      Like

  3. abeladabela 1st Dec 2022 at 5:53 am #

    Though I mostly have liked realistic works, something about symbolic and shadowy paintings really speak to me in a way others couldn’t

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom 22nd Jan 2023 at 6:19 pm #

    Thanks for this informative and soulful introduction to these two singular painters. I find Spilliaert very striking, his paintings are like dream sequences from a black-and-white film… Clearly a very powerful and original imagination.

    There’s a strange kinship between the Gust of Wind and Young Woman at the Beach by Wilson Steer. It’s funny to imagine it’s the same girl, just painted in different weather conditions.

    Personally I don’t find his works that disturbing or menacing. I think amid the exaggerated terror and starkness of the images, there is an implicit humour, almost self-mocking, like an acknowledgement that he’s being slightly hysterical. I also like the fact that once he got married, he happily picked up the pipe and slippers of domestic contentment, and his brain was never again besieged by these dark, tormenting visions. Quite sweet, really.

    Like

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