Tag Archives: coastal town

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?

Ford Madox Brown – Capturing the Atmosphere: Walton-on-the-Naze and The Hayfield

29 Aug

Ford Madox Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze (1860)

The final days of August are always tinged in melancholy. Summer is not yet gone, and autumn has not yet arrived. The rich and vibrant facade of summer is slightly cracking and a yearning for what once was fills the cracks, and even a sunny, warm day or the beauty of a blooming rose are haunted by a feeling of nostalgia for the passing summer. The first rain, or a gust of wind, the first sight of yellow leaves on a chestnut tree all seem ominous of what is to come. This mood inhabits some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and two of such examples are landscape scenes by Ford Madox Brown. His paintings “The Hayfield” and “Walton-on-the-Naze” both possess that rich yet wistful ambience. Most of the painting “The Hayfield” was painted slowly and patiently during a period of time from late July to early September and, following the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy of painting directly from nature, Brown would walk miles and miles from his house two times a week to a spot where the scenery was the most delightful. Waiting for the perfect light, he would start painting at 5 am. The twilight scene shows the end of a working day; the moon had just risen but there is still enough daylight to reveal the scene to our eyes. The farmers are slowly getting ready to go home, there are children sittin in the haycart and one man is gazing up at the moon. You can feel the chill in the air, the slightly damp, cold grass, children’s cheerful chatter… The colours of the painting proved to be controversial, just as was the case with John Constable’s landscape some years before, but Brown stated in the catalogue for the painting that: “the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight”. This shows us that the Victorian audience had a perception of reality and nature different to what it really was and they didn’t want to see the reality in art, but rather their dreamy vision of the world around them.

The painting “Walton-on-the-Naze”, painted during Brown’s visit to this small coastal town in Essex in August 1859, again features the motif of a rising moon and the gorgeous effect of light. This might be his most beautiful landscape because the ephemeral light and the effect of depth are just mesmerising. The air seems soft, rosy and palpable and the rainbow in the sky adds a whole new dreamy dimension to the scene. I had had the luck of seeing the rainbow but a few weeks ago and its beauty still charms my memory. The male figure is the portrait of Brown himself and the female figure is Brown’s wife Emma. The little girl is their daughter Catherine. The beautiful visual rhythm of the stacks of wheat in the foreground may reminds us of the harvest time and the work that is to be done, but this painting isn’t the harvesting type like the previous one, but a touristy type because Brown and his family were on holiday in that coastal town when he painted it and this reflects the Victorian discovery of coastal towns and the sea as places for leisure, rest and fun. Londoners could have easily reached the coast via a steamer train and one is seen in the background of this painting. Even Elizabeth Siddal and Rossetti stayed on the sea for her health around the same time. The layers of depth in this painting are superb, I mean just look at the ship disappearing on the horizon, a pink sky behind it, how utterly dreamy.

Ford Madox Brown, The Hayfield, 1855-56