The proof, in this self-portrait, that Spilliaert is other than he thinks he is or feels he ought to be, that in some constitutional sense he is incapable of coinciding with himself, lies in the indelible horror with which he stares at his face in the surface of the mirror; a mirror that, presumably, he angles up at himself from roughly waist height, so that he can paint the self-portrait itself. But this sense of otherness, of a fractured self, is also there in the gilt mirror behind him, which registers his shadow as little more than a faint stain behind his shoulder, so ghostly has he become to himself. This is a portrait of the artist not as an individual but, to use an anthropological term, a "dividual". That is, in an etymological sense, not someone indivisible so much as endlessly self-divided and self-dividing. Someone who never reaches a core self in relation to which he or she might declare, ‘This is me!’ As Spilliaert artfully suggests through the reflective surfaces he depicts, which include the framed pictures above him, he is trapped in a hall of mirrors. Léon through the Looking-Glass.
Here, Spilliaert is so alien to himself and others that he seems to have been recruited to the ranks of the undead. Like Count Dracula, in the novel published a decade earlier by Bram Stoker, he is “without a single speck of colour about him anywhere”, drained of blood. And he stares at the viewer – from a vast distance, it seems, but at the same time in a relationship of claustrophobic closeness – as though he contemplates consuming them simply so as to survive. His eyes and mouth are those of a corpse, his eye-sockets, like his gums and teeth, appearing to collapse slowly, as if he has been standing so still that insects and other parasites have secretly, silently started to feed on his inanimate form. There is something physically and spiritually corrupt about his spectral face; even the faintest sense, I think, of a rotten smell, of the putrescent breath of a corpse, emanating from that lifeless mouth – a poisonous antidote, perhaps, to the fragrances that Spilliaert’s father, a successful perfumier, produced and sold in his shop on Kapellestraat, Ostend.
Spilliaert painted many of his troubling, uncannily beautiful self-portraits from this period on returning to his parents’ house after walking at night. The clock reflected alongside him here might read 3am – the “dead of night”. But equally the hands might be broken, signalling that the artist is confined to some bad eternity. The time of the undead. And the nightwalker.
“Something unstilled, unstillable is within me,” Nietzsche writes in Zarathustra’s ‘Night Song’; “it wants to be voiced.” It is this unstilled and unstillable sense of something inside him, something dark and fundamentally alien, like a fragment of the night, that the restless, sleepless Spilliaert so brilliantly represented on paper.