Zelfportret met blauw schetsboek van Léon Spilliaert, KMSKA

‘Spilliaert was a spiritual artist’

Léon Spilliaert’s work will be on show this year in London and Paris. Will 2020 mark his big breakthrough? For the spring issue of our museum magazine ZAAL Z, Erick Rinckhout talked to the Spilliaert expert Anne Adriaens-Pannier.

To prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, the Spilliaert exhibition in the Royal Academy had to close its doors early. That is why the RA is planning an extension. You can visit the expo from August 5 to September 20, 2020.

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Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946) presented a gloomy picture of reality at the beginning of the 20th century. He is known for his nocturnal scenes on the deserted promenade and beach of his native Ostend, and for the self-portraits – sometimes menacing – that he made during his many sleepless nights. Human beings appear powerless against the darkness or are swallowed up by unfathomable depths.

Most of the works were done in Indian ink and pastels. In this way, Spilliaert expressed his pessimistic worldview, fuelled by the writings of philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.


The wider world is now finally about to discover this brilliant artist. The exhibition currently at the Royal Academy in London will subsequently travel in modified form to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It has been curated by Anne Adriaens-Pannier, who has studied and published the master’s work in Belgium and abroad for decades.

The Royal Academy in London is hosting the Spilliaert retrospective. What prompted their interest?

Anne Adriaens-Pannier: ‘When the Spilliaert House opened in 2016 and the Ensor-Spilliaert wing at Mu.ZEE in Ostend, I talked to Luc Tuymans, who told me he was planning to include two Spilliaerts in his James Ensor exhibition at the Royal Academy. So it was Tuymans who brought Léon Spilliaert to the attention of the RA curator Adrian Locke, who then contacted me to collaborate. A partnership was suggested between London and New York, where I’ve been trying to drum up interest for a Spilliaert exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum for years. Every time it seems about to go ahead, the trustees or directors change. So the Musée d’Orsay eventually became the partner. The French didn’t want the full survey that London did, but the core of the exhibition is the same.’


‘As luck would have it, the Royal Academy is holding an exhibition of works on paper at the same time. Did you know that Spilliaert and Picasso exhibited together in 1904 at the Clovis Sagot gallery in Paris? Picasso’s blue harlequins were shown alongside Spilliaert’s gloomy black and white works. Both artists were born in 1881, incidentally.’

Zelfportret met blauw schetsboek van Léon Spilliaert, KMSKA
Self Portrait with Blue Sketchbook Léon Spilliaert
Landschap in rode avondgloed met trekvogels van Léon Spilliaert
Landscape under a Red Evening Glow with Migratory Birds Léon Spilliaert
Dikke boom van Léon Spilliaert
Big Tree Léon Spilliaert

Gloomy artist

Spilliaert is best known for his gloomy and intense self-portraits. Was he a pessimistic person?

Adriaens-Pannier: ‘Spilliaert was 20 in 1901 and was keen to present himself in an individual and original way – not according to the fashion of the time. That meant there should be nothing colourful: no Impressionism or Luminism. But he had psychological problems too. He should really have been in analysis, but fortunately for us that didn’t happen. It means we can look instead at how he psychoanalyzed himself in his self-portraits. He studied his own personality and read a great deal. He was into Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in French translation at the age of 17, which got him into trouble at school. His father was sent for but he was a very liberal man, who let his oldest son read what he wanted. Léon Spilliaert was definitely not a bohemian artist, though. He came from a bourgeois family and his father ran a luxury perfume business in Ostend, creating perfumes himself and supplying the Belgian royal household.’

As a young man, Spilliaert was a tormented figure, but that changed when he found happiness.

Anne Adriaens-Pannier, curator of the Spilliaert exhibitions in Londen & Parijs

He made virtually all his self-portraits at night. Why was that?

Adriaens-Pannier: ‘Colours were attenuated and the contrasts of light and shade much stronger. People didn’t get it at first: they thought his work wasn’t sensual or colourful enough. There’s an opaque, velvety black in Spilliaert’s early work, which might have been influenced by Odilon Redon, who once said: “Black is the colour of the spirit”. Spilliaert was a spiritual artist. There’s an existential angst in his work. His personality as a young artist was quite dark: he was lonely and his art has a similar melancholic feel to what we find later in de Chirico. As a young man, Spilliaert was a tormented figure, but that changed when he found happiness. He differed in that respect from Edvard Munch, who suffered from actual mental illness.’

Zelfportret van Léon Spilliaert
Self Portrait Léon Spilliaert

On finding happiness

Spilliaert found happiness. Did that make him a less interesting artist as the cliché would have it?

Adriaens-Pannier: ‘He married Rachel Vergison in 1916, against his father’s wishes. It’s great that he found happiness [laughs]: I’m glad for him! Spilliaert showed his domestic happiness in the same way that Rik Wouters did, but people view it differently. Even though Spilliaert became more traditional, his compositions are still highly personal. People resent the fact that once he found himself, he stopped looking inwardly for themes and began to work more experimentally. He looked at the things around him, went to Brussels, and saw the kind of stuff being shown at the Giroux gallery: the Futurists, for instance. His subject matter evolved, but he was no less inspired.’

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