This show opens with a black blob. An inky, scrawly, looming lump of damp mountainside, like a geological metaphor for impending doom. And from there, it doesn’t get much lighter.
Léon Spilliaert was born in Ostend, Belgium, in 1881. He spent most of his life between there and Brussels, and his gothicky, wobbly paintings are filled with the frigid features of the local landscape.
The strongest sense conveyed is how freaking freezing it is. Every tiny figure is battered by a bitter wind, each hunched-over human a drastically poor opponent when pitted against the elements. His favoured medium of fuzzy Indian ink washes and gouache makes everything look like it’s viewed through the evening mizzle.
This neatly comprehensive exhibition moves through the themes of Spilliaert’s career, including the Symbolist-ish illustrations he made for a couple of books and his woe-is-me self-portraits.
But Spilliaert was remarkably consistent. He found his niche and stuck to it. And that niche was: desolation. These are sad, gloomy, lonely images in which even the women he idolises turn their back on poor Léon. There are paintings titled ‘Alone’ and ‘Misery’ (the latter showing a bit of black cloth dripping from a droopy clothes line).
The most obvious artistic comparison is with Edvard Munch, but whereas the painter of ‘The Scream’ slapped his bare soul across the canvas, spreading existential angst like Marmite, Spilliaert gives only a sense of emptiness. And that’s the essential problem of the show. Spilliaert’s output is… never quite good enough. It’s always too teenage, not just in its obsession with depression, but its lack of interrogation of it.
The exception to this rule is when he paints the sea. There’s more emotional nuance to the expanse of Ostend water than all the windswept humans on shore. It’s also the only thing given colour: spearminty daubs and swelling pools of bright blue. Perhaps if he’d turned his eyes seawards instead of inwards, his art would have plumbed greater depths.