On chilling first encounter, the Belgian Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946) seems a painter unlike others. He howls in his self-portraits. A cold wind whips his pictures at the Phillips Collection here.
"I was immediately struck by the harsh, crude aspect of his tormented face," wrote a Frenchman who first met him in September 1909, beside the gray North Sea. "A bony face, accented and deeply creased at the jowls, with nearly brutal jaws." Spilliaert was insomniac; at night he used to prowl Oostende's mist-filled streets.
The accompanying catalog insists on his loneness: "It is nearly impossible to place him artistically among his contemporaries . . . He was simply himself, a man who seemed to exist outside any known tradition."
That Spilliaert was an odd man there can be no doubt, yet there is something unconvincing in the man's estrangement.
The more one looks at Spilliaert's melancholy art, the more his haunted aspect seems an actor's guise. It is wrong to think of Spilliaert only as a tortured soul suffering alone beside a shadowed sea. Think of him, instead, as a gentleman of fashion. Imagine him at night in his gray native Oostende -- not outside by the pounding waves, suffering in silence -- but inside the casino, chatting with aristocrats. He is there again, as he has been so often, as the guest of the director. He is in his evening clothes; his young and lovely wife wears a low-cut gown.
Oostende, before World War I, the catalog informs us, was a "meeting place for all the rich and elegant people of Europe and elsewhere: the Shah of Persia, maharajahs, the Russian aristocracy, Caruso and La Belle Otero!" The art of Leon Spilliaert in many ways reflects the fashionable decadence of that fashion-ridden time.
The women Spilliaert painted are hallow-eyed and shrouded, and the diagonals that organized his shadowy interiors are as sharp as spears. In this, and in much more. Spilliaert showed his debt of Oslo's Edvard Munch -- as well as his alliegance to the gloom that ruled his time.
Munch, for years, had filled his prints with blood and death and screams. In his lifelong preference for the somber and the frightening, he was not alone. In England to the north, witty Oscar Wilde already had envisioned the magic, monstrous portrait of Dorian Gray. Dr. Freud, in Vienna, was meanwhile extracting terrors of the womb and tomb from his patients' dreams. In 1904, in Paris, Leon Spilliaert showed with the young Picasso, who at the time was making those melancholy pictures from the period known as Blue.
Spilliaert has been called a symbolist, a mystic, a man too much attracted to the darker side of his own imagination. On New Year's Eve in 1904, in a letter to a friend, the artist -- unconvincingly -- denied the accusation.
"Never make painting from imagination," he wrote with fervor. "Symbolism, hysticism, etc., all that is a distraction, a sickness . . . Oh! if I were only rid of my uneasy, feverish character . . . I would go to some part of the countryside, go to copy everything stupidly, or with complete simplicity . . . That is the truth of painting."
To copy nature stupidly is an odd ambition. Yet in the last years of his life that was what Spilliaert did. This exhibition ends with the trees he painted in the 1940s. The spooks have all departed, the dark suggestive shadows are no longer there. Spilliaert was now working with a fine-point pen; with truly awesome patience, and a million little lines, he carefully constructed textured bark and branches.
Early on in his career, and occasionally thereafter, he made some wondrous pictures. Look, for instance, at his "Seascape with Sunset" of 1922. He was a gifted painter, in touch with his time. His originality need not be overrated.
His exhibit at the Phillips was organized in conjunction with Belgium. Today, a continuing festival of lectures, concerts, exhibits and symposiums. The Leon Spilliaert retrospective, with its rather silly title, "Symbol and Expression in 20th-Century Belgian Art," will travel to New York, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after closing here June 8.