From Léon Spilliaert’s Vertigo to…?

by Jin Wang

A few years ago, I stepped onto a train in Brussels and accidentally ended up in Ostend, where I first encountered works by the Belgian painter and graphic artist Léon Spilliaert. Wandering in the city’s museum, the Mu.ZEE, I was immediately intrigued by Spilliaert’s Vertigo (fig. 1, 1908). Similarly enthralled, a group of school kids surrounded the painting—studying the work by drawing (fig. 2).

Figure 1. Léon Spilliaert (1881 –1946). Vertigo (1908). Indian ink wash, brush, and colored pencil on paper. 637 x 476mm. Mu.ZEE, Ostend. Source: Mu.ZEE, Photo by Hugo Maertens.


In Vertigo, a female figure sitting on spiral stairs by the sea dominates the composition. The exaggerated perspective of the stairs abstracted into simple geometric shapes implies a sense of hypnotic danger. There is a sense of imbalance in the woman as she uncomfortably sits with one leg crossed on the step while a strong wind lifts her scarf and hair high up into the sky. It seems that she could fall down the stairs or be carried away by the wind at any moment. But facing danger, she resists all these external forces of vertigo that aim to push her into the abyss.

Spilliaert no doubt experimented with the fear of falling or manifesting the dangers of an enigmatic force from the surrounding void that threatens to take the human figure away. An early draft of Vertigo further explores this sense of danger. In the previous version, the perspective of the stairs is ever more extreme and the woman, shown frontal with her leg crossed, loses her balance and is at the point of falling. The finished work, however, is modified to depict the resistance from the woman: by showing her sitting with legs crossed from the side instead of the front, the posture of sitting is emphasized to anchor the figure to the stairs. Thus, by balancing the figure’s body to compensate for the dangerous environment, Spilliaert was not only interested in the experience of vertigo, but the refusal of the human figure to lapse into the complete unconscious.

Figure 2. A group of students in Mu.ZEE in front of Vertigo. Photo by Jin Wang, 2016.

The tension between spatial dynamism and the simultaneous resistance/trance of the human figures to the environment is an omnipresent theme in Spilliaert’s early works on paper from 1900 to 1910. These works depict imminent death, femme fatale, and mysticism—themes that very much align with the Symbolist movement.1 Precisely, the existing literature frames Spilliaert as a transitional figure from Belgian Symbolism to Flemish Expressionism.2 Also, this narrative toward symbolism is accompanied by an identity of a Nietzchean genius loner he constructed. Due to chronic stomach aches, he suffered insomnia and became known for wandering around the city at night. However, this can be contested by the fact that his work is always about his hometown Ostend—something that is often ignored beyond a biographical account. Even sometimes only an abstract backdrop, the iconic seascape and cityscape of the city provides enough specificity to distinguish his work from Symbolism. While Spilliaert’s paintings are based on his experience of his surroundings, the Symbolist generalized the locations to eternalize “essences” by constructing universal, idealized imagery.

Spilliaert’s images relate to a new aesthetic theory based on psychology and to spatial concerns amid rapid socio-economic changes. The cityscape and seascape are usually abstracted, or sometimes even void, which stands in contrast with human figures who resist a certain degree of abstraction. Here, I use abstraction as the opposite of figuration—just as the woman in Vertigo who is deliberately anchored onto the geometric stairs and exists within the barren seascape. In this way, abstraction is equivalent to the ominous lure of the surrounding environment which evokes the turn-of-the-century discourse of empathy theories (Einfühlung).3 

Spilliaert’s work especially embodies Wilhelm Worringer’s conception of two binary urges, namely abstraction and empathy.4 Though there is no evidence of direct connection between the two, the overlaps between Spilliaert’s works and Worringer’s theories prove the shared sentiment in contemporary Europe where Einfühlung intervened in the construction of a new aesthetic. By animating the surrounding objects while destabilizing the subjects of viewership through psychological empathy, Einfühlung extends optical visions to haptic and bodily experience.

The binary impulses of Ostend, as experienced by Spilliaert, were the reality for the locals: an exciting city in summer and a morbid town in winter, or a joyful resort in the daytime and a deserted provincial town at night. The lure of the surrounding environment has been discussed in the context of rapid industrialization in turn-of-the-century Europe, where dwellers were simultaneously mesmerized and alienated by the city. Ostend was the fastest modernized city besides Brussels in the new nation of Belgium, favored by the King and funded by colonial expansion in Congo. This city quickly transformed from a small fishing village to an international summer resort with royal establishments.The new infrastructure is recorded in Spilliaert’s works: the Kursaal, the Villa Royale, the Galerie Royales, the Royal Theaters, and the Church of Saint Peter and Paul. Therefore, an empathetic reading of Spilliaert’s oeuvre helps to connect fragmented visual elements, especially between the metaphysical manifestation of binary urges and the specific reference to Ostend’s locality.

Figure 3. Herlinde Seynaeve (b. 1979). Umbra (2002). Bronze. Ostend, Belgium. Photo by Jin Wang, 2016.

Today, along the promenade by the sea through the Galeries Royales, stands the sculpture by Herlinde Seynaeve, Umbra , created to pay homage to Spilliaert’s Vertigo (fig. 3, 2002). While Spilliaert was intrigued by the darkness of his hometown wandering at night in self-estrangement, maybe it is time to reconsider “darkness” as part of the historical development of the city. His work is a product of when the city’s new and exciting infrastructure was built through colonialism and imperialism in the late nineteenth century. To address the homage to Spilliaert, we should build upon the reflections of historian Debora Silverman when studying Art Nouveau; especially how the atrocities happening in Congo could materially and aesthetically influence artistic and stylistic endeavors at the turn-of-the-century Belgium.6 In this sense, I wonder, what kind of homage is relevant to pay to this understudied artist in Belgian modern art history? The question haunts me as I write, and I am still working on it.

In this research project about Spilliaert, I will construct a narrative beyond the biographical reading of his work which prevails in the existing scholarship that conveniently situates him in the Belgian Symbolist movement. Instead, I focus on the uncanny approach to his immediate surroundings. In his cityscape and seascape that evoke fears of immediate danger, of falling, of abstraction, and of agoraphobia, these themes are sharply different from, for example, James Ensor’s imagination of the same space when depicting carnivals and beach parties happening in daylight.7 Therefore, I propose to empathetically look at Spilliaert’s works and especially the binary impulses underlying the depiction of Ostend. By insisting on the artist’s response to the rapid transformation of his city from the small fishing village to a modern and seasonally touristic provincial town, I want to contextualize Spilliaert’s paintings as part of the newly established Imperial Belgium and how his work responds to the colonial exploitation of Congo.


Jin Wang is a doctoral student in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She focuses on modern and contemporary art in a global context and is interested in transcultural and intercultural exchanges, modernisms, and decolonial/postcolonial practices.



1. For more on Spilliaert’s works see Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Léon Spilliaert: From the Depths of the Soul (Brussels: Ludion Publishers, 2019), Adriaens-Pannier, Noémie Goldman, Adrian Locke, et al.,  Léon Spilliaert (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2020), Adriaens-Pannier and Leïla Jarbouai, Léon Spilliaert, 1881-1946: lumière et solitude (Paris: Réunion des musées naitionaux, 2020), Francine-Claire Legrand, Patricia Adams Farmer, Frank Edebau, et al., Léon Spilliaert: Symbol and Expression in 20th Century Belgian Art (Washington DC: The Phillips Collection, 1980), and Xavier Tricot, Léon Spilliaert: Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints (Antwerp: Pandora Publishers, 2020).

2. Ralph Gleis, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2020). Stephen Goddard and Jane Block, Les XX and the Belgian Avant-Garde: Prints, Drawings, and Books, ca. 1890 (Lawrence, KS: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1992). Jeffery W. Howe, Nature’s Mirror: Reality and Symbol in Belgian Landscape (Chestnut Hill, MA: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2017).

3. The concept of Einfühlung, developed in late nineteenth-century Germany, generally describes the projection of subjective feeling onto the objective world. The discourse overlaps with diverse contemporary fields such as philosophy, aesthetics, psychology, optics, art history, architecture, among others. It often refers to embodied responses generated by encountering specific things such as an image, object, or spatial environment. Juliet Koss, “On the Limits of Empathy,” The Art Bulletin 8, no.1 (March 2006): 139–157.

4. In his 1908 book Abstraction and Empathy, Worringer identifies two opposing forces in the history of art: abstraction and empathy (or mimesis). He claimed that abstraction (simplified and flat images) could be observed in societies where people had relatively hostile relationships with the outside world. Worringer argues that the attention to detail seen in more naturalistic styles, on the other hand, is the product of either classical or modern societies in which people lived harmoniously in the environment. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style, trans. Michael Bullock (New York: International Universities Press, 1953).

5. Marcel Vanhamme and Jean Delporte. Ostende: d’un village de pecheurs à la reine des plages (Brussels: CLAP, 1982).

6. Debora L. Silverman, “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism Part I.” West 86th 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139-181; “…Part II,” West 86th 19, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2012): 175-195; “…Part III,” West 86th 20, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2013): 3–61.

7. Inne Gheeraert and Mieke Mels, Ensor and Spilliaert: Two Great Ostend Masters (Ostend: Kustmuseum ann zee, 2016).

View all posts