Léon Spilliaert

The Cloud was painted circa 1902-1903, a very intense period marked by a great surge in the artist’s talent. The whole of Spilliaert is already there and every aspect of his work can be recognized, with the exception of garish colors which will start appearing in his pieces around 1912-1913.

The female image was the major theme of young Spilliaert’s work at the beginning of the 20th century, less for its subject as such than for a point of departure for his transformation of reality. A few months prior to working on The Cloud, Spilliaert was exposed to new artistic trends at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, notably the use of pure colors. However, without negating his affinity for Symbolism and Art Nouveau, Spilliaert chose to represent evocations of the twilight of the times. Traces of the Jan Toorop graphic design were still present in Spilliaert’s work, as well as the elegance of the end of the 19th century and the complicated sceneries of Fernand Khnopff. But Spilliaert’s mental space was utterly different. Black, dark, lost in limbos, his manner was both totally new and sober. His palette became muted with subtle shades. Through the flashes of light that Spilliaert caused to surge from the paper itself, he imposed strong chiaroscuro effects that are common to all his drawing of the 1901-03 period. Most often, the superposition of light over veils of shadow in China ink, and well delineated pen strokes together with discrete art light in color, are enough to express the subtle darkness of his inner world. The surroundings are simple so that the female figure becomes overwhelmingly present, invasive but transformed. In young Spilliaert’s work, nature is deprived of any sense, it stays mute. This is the invention of a new modernity inside the essence of Symbolism.

“Munch, De Chirico and Spilliaert are the first, though with different intensities of conscience, to suggest that behind objects, there is nothing. The being is solitary[1].” Through their gaze scrutinizing the vacuum, apparently blind to any perception, Spilliaert’s female figures seem to belong to a world which flees from the reality of everyday life. Notwithstanding, they remain human beings possibly personifying the desires, anxieties and fears of the artist himself. The rigid pose of a single figure, or of several figures whose repetition amplifies their effect, is reminiscent of the theatrical attitudes of Maurice Maeterlinck’s heroines. Indeed, inspiration taken from sources of Symbolist literature, first and foremost from Maeterlinck, is the key to Spilliaert’s work as early as 1901.

In The Cloud, Spilliaert’s animist faith is clearly focused on the element of Air. The artist gives to the distorted mass the appearance of a female body gliding in an endless drift. The mythological figure or celestial spirit loses its shape, spreading undulating curves without heaviness. On the other hand, the figure also recalls other silhouettes, all influenced by another major literary source for the artist: the Count of Lautréamont. In the 5th stanza of the 4th song of Maldoror, Lautréamont evokes “A whole series of birds of prey, fond of the flesh of others and promoting the use of the chase, beautiful as skeletons that thin out the leaves of the panocos in Arkansas, flutter around your forehead, like servants, submissive and accepted[2].” The 3rd stanza of the 4th song[3] also suggests a solitary female figure floating between earth and sea, exposed to the wind, defying the brutal strength of the water’s power.

This major work definitely epitomizes Symbolism while simultaneously approaching Expressionism. This fallen angel of Spilliaert’s is not subjected to malediction as those of Redon or Munch, but makes use of her obscure forces to emphasize her power of domination. Spilliaert’s well-known works dating between 1907 and 1910 will progressively move away from the symbolist-expressionist ideal, with the exception of his Ostend seascapes, which remained under the symbolist landscape influence of the 1890’s.


[1] Jean Clair, ”Spilliaert l’Européen”, in Leon Spilliaert 1881 – 1946, Brussels, 1981, p. 39.

[2] Lautréamont, Oeuvre Complète, Paris, Gallimard, 1970, p. 172

[3] Idem, p. 164-5


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