Between Spilliaert and his tub

Léon Spilliaert, De Blauwe Teil (The Blue Tub), 1907, 48 cm x 63 cm, paper, Indian ink, watercolour paint, colour pencil, photo Karin van Pinxteren

At night things can take on a life of their own, what causes this? It’s more than fear I think, the things are familiar to you, they have been in the same place for years and you know they are made of wood, glass or metal for example. Movement implies the presence of another being, someone unknown, or more ominous, an unknown force. It now no longer happens to me but as a child I was convinced that I had seen the desk lamp stir, the bent silhouette against the moon-lit curtain had changed just a tiny bit. Nonsense, and yet you stay alert in the dark, even in your own home. In the dark the noises of the day are idle, while the noises of the night manifest themselves. Like the last ember falling to ashes through the grate, the softly ticking electricity meter, a mouse scampering across the ceiling or an occasional inexplicable pop, crack or whatever it sounds like. Precisely that sound sets me at ease, the house is alive. 

As a child I was terrified of the space beneath my bed. I was sure, someone was lying there. One meter from the edge of the bed I would take a leap and before going to sleep I was hanging upside down to check without leaving the bed if all was well below me. But some time after switching off the light, the fear would grow on me that there was someone after all, lying unseen in the backmost blackness. The light back on and upside down again until I could slowly see the mould looming up, allowing me to go back to sleep. Later, some twenty years ago, I saw a woman in a tv show who would sit at the top of the stairs every night since her husband had died. Suddenly, I was cured from the last trace of night fear, no way, what a terrible life. With my project The Commitments the night actually became something positive. Making works about ether, mass and light led to the realisation that dark isn’t negative, black became spatial: when the daylight dies the real space, the boundless universe, becomes visible. The thought squared the dimension I had been aware of so far, this way my fear of the night disappeared, a matter of insight and definition.  

Visiting MuZee in Oostende last year, I saw the work De Blauwe Teil (The Blue Tub) by Léon Spilliaert from 1907. A charged drawing with just one blue tub. Hardly anything happens, a shiver. I thought it was fascinating and beautiful, my companion thought it was horrible and frightening. I was surprised, why frightening? She turned away her face and wanted to leave. I looked again, did it seem frightening to me? Two completely opposite reactions in the exact same gaze. No I didn’t find it frightening, perhaps because I love the night with her mounting silence. 

Why does this work still have an impact after over a hundred years? Visible are the tangible soft surface of the enamel, the undefined ground and the light that is captured and revealed. The curve of the tub makes the light malleable, makes the object malleable. The view is oblique and the tub is not in the middle but higher up so it doesn’t become the central subject. Something else seems to be present, just outside the frame, the viewer’s feet perhaps? Is it the distance that matters here? Is it looking, thinking? The realisation that a simple domestic object can capture the moon? The laundry by day, the white light by night, originating from a day elsewhere on Earth. While you, the viewer, a rational creature, still unreplaceable by robots to this day, can only observe it? The human riddle, anything can be argued and observed but a physical union never takes place, not even for an instant, like the moonlight and the tub become visibly one for a brief moment. Body and mind are on their own, the skin won’t absorb or reflect, the mind’s reflection remains invisible. Not a hollow in the body that might store something, only curves that prevent anything to be added. 

The work’s explanatory panel contains the phrase ‘The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter: the encounter between painter and model: even if the model is a mountain or a shelf of empty medicine bottles.’ John Berger.

I remember another Berger statement ‘It takes a lot of imagination to put yourself in someone else’s situation’. 

We know that Spilliaert’s health was fragile at the time and he had trouble sleeping, wandered around his home and town. That is sufficient knowledge, digging deeper turns into stirring. I once wrote about Aldo Rossi ‘beyond death it all becomes speculation’ when I heard two very diverging versions of his personality from two different people, it remains a constant factor for me. I hold on to the idea that it is about the encounter like Berger suggests. A physical encounter has a specific distance defined by the very understanding that it is an encounter and in this distance something immaterial takes place. 

Spilliaert saw that the moonlight was being captured, manifested itself right in front of his feet in his home, and purely painted this moment, the string of an encounter. Moon on the floor, somewhat expressive so that movement of the subject seems to be suggested, but it is the night that moves, not the tub. Spilliaert wanted to paint all this and show it in relation to himself or, when the work started to lead its own life, to the viewer whose feet are now just outside the frame instead of Spilliaert’s. Between the viewer and the tub there is room for a step, one single step and the moonlight can be touched. He paints the charge of that distance, shows a cohesion instead of a subject. In the night many things become clear.

© Karin van Pinxteren, 22 May, 2014 | translation Nanne op ‘t Ende