Léon Spilliaert | Royal Academy

What a shame this show, like all the others in London, is now closed. If there ever was an artist who exemplified social distancing, it’s Léon Spilliaert. And, having not spoken in person to anybody for coming up to two weeks now, I can’t tell anyone about how much I loved his paintings. I already regret just taking a quick spin around the three rooms in the upper galleries of the Royal Academy when I visited the exhibition, blithely assuming that I’d be back soon enough for a proper look.

Spilliaert was a loner from the back of beyond, also known as the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend. (It’s almost laughable that James Ensor, whose joyous colours could hardly be more different from Spilliaert’s monochrome bleakness, is the town’s other famous artistic son.) An insomniac, Spilliaert’ painted an extraordinary series of mad-eyed self portraits in the stillness of his lamplit room, and scenes from his lonely walks - a unique nocturnal environment of eternal early winter, whipping sea air and dark stormy waters.

hofstraat Hofstraat, Ostend (1908)

The painting above was one of the many that stopped me in my tracks, though I regret not having lingered longer. That single pinprick of light and its wet trail of reflection down the street, blurring as beheld by the insomniac’s twitching eye. The suggestion of sea, of mist in the horizon. But hemmed in by those unshifting black cliffs of commercial and apartment buildings, woozily overhanging. A bad dream.

Spilliaert led a life of negation in these fruitful early decades, even rejecting oil paints for long stretches, though happily he became a successful artist and doting grandfather by the end. How strange that he suddenly surfaced here in London to warn us of the coming darkness, and how sad that he’s now slammed back behind closed doors. Closed for how long? The exhibition runs until late May. Here’s hoping it’s not too late.

Léon Spillaert is at the Royal Academy (London). February 23 - May 25 2020