LEON SPILLIAERT

Into psychic free-fall

by Victoria James

We’re so used to Tokyo’s cramped streets that the endless parallel perspectives offered by the spacious grid of roads in central Ginza can make the head spin. And recently, they’ve become more dizzying still. Hanging from every lamppost along Chuo-dori is an eye-catching image: A young woman, her scarf flying in a strong wind, picks her way carefully down an impossible staircase. The effect is vertiginous; the picture is called “Vertigo.”

“Vertigo” was painted in 1908 by Belgian Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946), and is the best-known work of this underappreciated artist, currently receiving his first Japanese showing in an exhibition at the Bridgestone Museum of Art until June 6 (then touring to Himeji and Nagoya).

The reason for Spilliaert’s relative neglect by the art-critical establishment may be due to his defiance of easy categorization.

The bold composition of many of his works — landscapes reduced to converging lines; sea, sky and earth depicted as blocks of color — hints at abstraction, yet there’s never any doubt as to what Spilliaert is painting. Some works have the rich coloration of Fauvist or Orphist canvases, yet his preferred medium is a simple monochrome wash of India ink. His love of imagery and recurring motifs links him to the Symbolists, yet his symbols are all his own.

Spilliaert was a largely self-taught artist (he dropped out of art academy in Bruges after attending for just a few months in 1899). Indeed, he was an autodidact in all fields. After leaving the academy, Spilliaert set out to broaden his horizons and engage with the intellectual currents of the day (Friedrich Nietzsche was a strong influence).

The resulting works from this period are titled for abstract or symbolic concepts — “The Earth” (1902), “Love” (1901), “Virgin” (1902) — yet they give those abstractions human forms. These, though, are hauntingly unlike conventional artistic interpretations. The Earth is shown as a pregnant woman, but her face is gaunt and hollow and chimney stacks pour out smoke around her feet; “Love” is embodied by an elegant, middle-aged woman who is holding upright, as if in a dance pose, the sagging, emaciated form of a much older man.

From these symbolic psychological sketches, Spilliaert turned to portraiture. His subjects were largely female and outstanding here are two pictures that convey a powerful impression of their subjects: the level-eyed gaze of “Woman with Pince-nez” (1907) and the near caricature of “Woman with Rose Hat” (1904), done in black and white in India ink — except for two bright blue dots for the eyes, an effect that is almost absurd and certainly arresting.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that such a combination of portraiture and focused self-education would lead Spilliaert to turn to himself as an artistic subject. In 1907 he produced a number of conventional, head-and-shoulder self-portraits. In 1908, however, doubtless now confident of his powers of self-representation, he loosened his grip and let himself free-fall into his own psyche.

The results are disturbing. One picture presents a series of infinite regressions — a mirror behind the artist endlessly reflects his image as shown in another mirror opposite him. One is a face-on picture of almost photographic realism; another shows the artist, blank-eyed, standing behind a countertop. A fourth picture is almost nightmarish: the artist recoils as if in horror from his own appearance, his face grotesquely distorted. The perspective of this picture tilts queasily into the frame, as if to throw the viewer off balance.

When the artist turned from himself back to the world the following year, his experiments with psychological portraiture left a lasting impression on his depictions of even the most everyday scenes. In “Hairdressing Salon” (1909), for example, the hats and coats hanging neatly on pegs seem to mimic and mock the human form.

Simultaneously with these works, Spilliaert was pursuing a different style and subject matter altogether in his depictions of the sea and the shore around his native Ostend.

Where the portraits exaggerate the details of their subject to the point of grotesquerie or near-caricature, the landscapes and seascapes the artist produced from 1905 to 1909 move boldly toward abstraction. The stunning “Woman on the Sea-dike” (1907) juxtaposes luminous blue streaks of sky and sea with the converging lines of shore, harbor and dike. These divide the bottom half of the canvas into triangles of color: yellow sandy shallows, a brown beach, a strip of green grass, and black walls stretching on either side of the central pale path atop the dike — along which walks a solitary, shawl-wrapped figure.

Indeed, composition was the keynote of Spilliaert’s art, whichever genre he was working in. “In a picture, the subject does not interest me very much,” he once remarked. “Rather, what is important is how it is made, how it is understood, and how it is balanced. Before placing even a touch of color, before setting down even a single person, animal, or object, I ponder and calculate.”

To get everything just right, the artist would often return to a particular subject or composition, refining each version. Even the powerful image of “Vertigo” did not spring into Spilliaert’s mind fully formed. The same year, he made another version (now lost) in which the stairs are steeper, the woman’s face full of horror. It is striking, but not captivating. As the final version reminds us, masterpieces don’t just happen — they’re pondered upon, calculated and made.