The Spirit of De Chirico (and of Spillieart) Haunts the Abandoned Sports Centre and the Deserted Campus

On a damp misty evening in the middle of February, I finished a meeting with some colleagues at the Barber Institute and I decided to take a route home which took me alongside the University’s new Sports Centre, a building that I particularly admire. As I followed the path down, I looked again at the punctuated brick wall that cleverly screens multi-level car park and the way in which the outside wall of the main sports arena – which could have been just a monotonous expanse of brickwork – is divided and divided again, with columns, panels and indentations.

I reached the entrance atrium and peered through the impressive glass curtain wall, which must be at least 65 feet high and 80 feet wide. It always reminds me of a gothic cathedral window. A little fanciful perhaps? But it made me wonder about how the designers of such a utilitarian building – one that might have been little more than an assembly of boxes for different performance spaces – had achieved so many varied and impressive architectural effects.

On this occasion, the building had an unexpected surprise in store for me. As I reached the main road, I turned into the colonnade that stretches along the swimming pool frontage of the centre. Although I had walked this way many times before, I was seized by an uncanny sensation. The covered walkway formed by the colonnade was deserted, the long procession of columns – each lit from above with an almost hypnotic pool of light below – seemed to be leading me into another world. I paused, I felt as if I had stepped into a painting by Giorgio De Chirico, into one of his arcades filled with vague suggestions and portents.

Then, as I walked on, the sensation passed almost as quickly as it had come upon me. I became aware of the clamour of traffic on the street side of the colonnade and, through tall windows on my left, I observed an array of swimmers metronomically executing lengths. The water rippled in their wake, casting dancing reflections on the walls. I felt the pulse of life all around me.

On returning home, I found an image of De Chiricho’s, The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, which he painted in 1914 at the height of his pittura metafisica period. De Chirico’s painting of a solitary girl bowling her hoop along an empty street, with an arcade to the right in deep shadow and another arcade to the left in bright sunlight disappearing into the distance, is at once mysterious and unsettling. Both my earlier experience in the colonnade and De Chirico’s painting left me with a vague feeling of foreboding.

In mid-February, the implications of the spread of the coronavirus were only beginning to dawn on us. There was talk of infected people, still few in number, having to be quarantined and of the possibility of some kind of lock-down if the virus couldn’t be contained. Now, ten weeks later, all is changed. My wife and I have been confined to our house for over half that period and the only time we go out is for an afternoon walk.

Normally we go to a local recreation ground but, at the end of last week, I suggested that we walk towards the University as we live close by. As we approached the Sports Centre, the colonnade was lit up in the hazy afternoon sun, long shadows were cast across the walkway, no-one was around, and then, at the last minute, I saw a solitary figure, a young woman absorbed by her phone.

I thought again of The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. In the background of the painting is the elongated shadow of a figure that seems to have an unsupported staff beside it. Who is this unseen but threatening presence? Alongside the arcade to the right, shrouded in shadow, is a covered cart with its doors wide open. The cart is empty, but what did it once contain? Perhaps a caged animal, now on the loose? These may be idle speculations but the presentiment I first sensed when I entered the colonnade all those weeks ago and which drew me to De Chirico’s painting, now seems to have been realised as a lethal virus stalks our world.

We entered the walkway and I looked once again into the swimming pool. The water was still and untroubled; its mirrored surface reflected back the windows through which I was looking. I was struck by the water’s eerie blueness, intensified by the two yellow lane dividers.

Returning home and thinking of the blueness of the pool, I recalled another painter of arcades (or of one particular arcade), Léon Spilliaert. His Royal Galleries, Ostend of 1908 is typical, itshows the intersection between Ostend’s grand sea frontage, the sweeping shore and the distant sea, subjects he returned to obsessively. His arcade views are just as mysterious as De Chirico’s and perhaps more lonely, with only the occasional sign of life.

.Spilliaert worked mainly in monochrome in various shades of grey. But, when he used colour, it was often a grey-blue, as in the sky above above. This blue can be found not only in his views of Ostend but also in the claustrophobic views of his bedroom (produced at a time when he was confined by illness in 1908) and in his haunting and haunted self-portraits (most obviously in his Self Portrait with a Blue Background of 1907).

Spillieart’s blue is the colour of melancholy and solitude, it is ‘the light that got lost’ in the sea and sky (as Rebecca Solnit put it) and even in the University’s abandoned swimming pool. It is the colour for our forsaken times.

Jon Stevens

Note: Léon Spillieart is the subject of a current exhibition at the Royal Academy, but, alas, it is now closed to visitors. The RA has produced a virtual tour of the exhibition, which you can see on this link

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