Tag Archives: Belgium

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?

Poetry and Sadness of Abandoned Places

13 Aug

“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.”

(Cyril Connolly)

Maison of the Philosopher, picture found here.

I’ve always felt a fondness for things and places old and slightly tattered, where the moldy, dusty and sweet scent of the passing of time lingers in the air and every abandoned every day object is woven with stories and secrets. Abandoned houses, manors and castles posses such a sad, poetic beauty and their solitary abandoned state and slight decay makes them much more romantic to my eyes because every broken window, every crack on the wall, every tattered wallpaper, every porcelain cup, doll, a clock or a bed left behind tell a tale of a life once thriving between the four walls. Mystery and romance shrouds everything that would usually seem mundane in abandoned places; a left notebook, train ticket, old shoe, everything seems so precious and mysterious. I’d chose a cracked facade overgrown with ivy and perhaps even red roses, if I’m being fancy and decadent, over a brand new white facade any day because the former has so much vivacity and life in it, and a new building hasn’t lived much at all. Pristine and pretty perhaps it is, but doesn’t awake my curiosity at all.

With all that said, you can imagine my delight when I discovered a YouTube channel called “Bros of Decay“; two twenty-something year old brothers from Belgium make delightful videos about abandoned places; from very fancy and rich castles and manors with often odd and bizarre history behind them, to more average homes of working class people. Their filming locations range from Belgium and France to Italy, Spain and Portugal, even Japan, and I really enjoy observing the differences in architecture of different regions.  French countryside manors seem so dreamlike and I can’t help but imagine myself a little girl living in one of them; sleeping in a bedroom with white floral wallpapers, washing my face in a basin in the morning, playing with my porcelain dolls and practicing piano in the lovely drawing room downstairs with a view of the loveliest garden full of roses and lilies, maybe even a pond with a weeping willow stretching its branches over the water…. Yes, these videos are definitely fueling my daydreams! (As if they need further fueling) And that is why I felt the need to recommend them to all of you; I think they are just so well-made, the way they are filmed is great because you can real observe and soak in all the details, and also the lads are very polite and respectful and it’s really pleasant to watch over all. I hate when these types of videos are sensationalist. All the pictures in this post are from their site and of course you can watch the video for any of these lovely locations. Oh, and to add to the intro quote, dried roses are dead and they also smell sweet!

Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Hôtel Particulier and Art of Paul Delvaux

24 Feb

“All my life I’ve tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream.”

(Paul Delvaux)

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus (La Venus Endormie), 1944

Serge Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson” released on 24 March 1971 has a Lolitaesque theme and in seven unique yet connected songs tells a tale of an older gentleman (Serge) who, by accident, collides his car into the red bicycle of a sweet and pretty schoolgirl called Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin). This chance seemingly unhappy encounter blossoms into a flower of seduction and romance as the gentleman takes Melody to a hotel. This part of the musical story is told in the fifth song “L’hôtel particulier“. Needless to say, I very much enjoy the variety of different musical styles on the album’s songs, and I love the innocently-sexy Jane Birkin in the videos, but it is the video for this song “L’hôtel particulier” that fascinates me in particular because it features the wondrous paintings of the Belgian Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) who was actually still alive during the time the album was made. Not only alive, but also very prolific. Even though he was the last surviving Surrealist during his life, he was a wanderer and an individualist in the Surrealist crowd who created a unique dream-like world on his canvases which feature repetitive motifs; Classical architecture, nocturnal setting, nude women whose bodies are white as snow and appear smooth as marble, skeletons, crescent moon, trains, boudoirs.

The shaping of Delvaux’s art career was a slow and steady process because at first his parents pressured him into studying architecture, it was something he didn’t enjoy but it did serve him greatly later in creating the strange, accurately depicted yet eerie spaces in his paintings. In 1934 Delvaux saw the Surrealist exhibition “Minotaure” and this inspired him to start working in the direction of Surrealism because it led him back to the imaginative state of childhood. Delvaux’s art also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s cold and enigmatic worlds where architecture is drawn with precision yet the overall effect is unsettling. In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy and the architecture inspired him to serve as a setting for the world of his languid dead-eyed hypnotised nudes. Delvaux painted some wonderful eerie paintings even in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the paintings chosen for Gainsbourg’s video were mostly painted in the 1940s. The World War II period was a harsh one for Delvaux as it was for everyone, but it only inspired him to paint more and to retreat into the world of his imagination. The artist stated “I would like to create a fabulous painting in which I would live, in which I could live.”

As a child he was afraid of skeletons but later in life he found a way to incorporate them into his nocturnal worlds, bones glistening in moonlight, death opposing the sensuality of the women’s nude flesh. One such skeleton pops up in the painting “Sleeping Venus” painted in 1944, and unlike skeletons in James Ensor’s art (a fellow Belgian painter), Delvaux’s skeleton is unashamed of himself, he doesn’t put on a mask or hide under some garish carnival clothes. Nude Venus is sweetly asleep on a divan in front of the temple-like building while the skeleton is having a fascinating conversation with a Belle Epoque woman with a large brimmed hat and a dark red dress. The conversation is so fascinating that not even the passing couple, Serge and Jane, can interrupt it. Even though Delvaux’s paintings aren’t directly connected to the music and the song, I think they create a striking background visually which really leaves the viewer interested.

Bellow I’ve compared Delvaux’s paintings to stills from the video:

Paul Delvaux, The Echo, 1943

Paul Delvaux, Night Train, 1947

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

Paul Delvaux, Le nu et le mannequin (Le nu au mannequin), signed and dated ‘P.Delvaux 12-47’, December 1947

James Ensor – Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man

17 Feb

Welcome to the whimsical, colourful and macabre world of the Belgian painter James Ensor.

James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man, 1891

Painting “Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man” is a perfect example of the art that Ensor remains known for. Skeletons shouting, skeletons laughing, skeletons dressed in pretty clothes and fancy hats fighting and threatening each other with brooms and umbrellas. Meanwhile, on the far left and far right ends of the canvas a group of masked faces observe in silence. Their faces, or rather the masks they are wearing reveal a whole set of different emotions; anger, curiosity, shock, malice. Ensor’s whimsically knowns no end because in some paintings it is hard to tell whether a figure is a living person or a skeleton wearing a mask in order to trick us into thinking it’s a living flesh and blood. He skilfully combines playfulness with morbidity, eerie sense of transience with joyous hedonism of the carnival. Skeletons wearing clothes, fighting and living normally amongst humans is death itself laughing to our face, it is as if she is saying: you can’t avoid me, so embrace me. Unlike Edvard Munch who had a morbid obsession with death and illness, Ensor’s view on it is neither sad nor tragic. Death is inseparable from the often pointless and often laughable, at once colourful, burdensome and boring carnival of life. He in fact paints it in shiny and vibrant colours, often with the background in white, painted in careful small brushstrokes, showing attention to detail and filing the space with light.

James Ensor (1860-1949) didn’t always paint these kind of vibrant yet twisted scenes full of intrigues. He wasted his early years on painting in a Realistic manner and painting the popular plein air scenes inspired by the Impressionists. But as he approached his thirties, he found his artistic inspiration in something that had been right in front of his nose for years – carnival masks. In his coastal home town of Ostend in Belgium, Ensor’s parents owned a shop that sold masks, mostly for tourists. So, in carnival masks in front of his eyes and skeletons in his imagination, Ensor concocted many and many whimsical paintings with just a slight macabre touch. The faces on masks are perhaps a hint to Bruegel the Elder’s grotesque faces of peasants, but Ensor adds a social critique by portraying his disillusionment in society around him. Those masked faces, for me, perfectly capture the way I see people around me and in the streets; always eager to judge and stuff noses in matters that do not concern them, hiding their true malicious motifs under a mask of smiles and nice words. With its emphasis on surreal world where skeletons and humans live in harmony, and the expressive abilities of human faces with different emotions, Ensor’s art carried a seed that would later blossom into Expressionism and Surrealism, although it’s important to note that he wasn’t as influential on the development of those art movements as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch were.