Léon Spilliaert

Exhibition: 21 September 2006 - 4 February 2007

Curator

Dr. Anne Adriaens-Pannier

From the museum website

From September 21st, 2006 to February 4th, 2007, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium presents an extensive exhibition dedicated to the original and very personal work of Léon SPILLIAERT (Ostend 1881 – Brussels 1946).Sixty years after his death, it is suitable to make the point about the diversity of style, content and spirituality of those works which, although influenced by the spirit of the ‘fin de siècle’, will develop far beyond Symbolism.

The exhibition: a free spirit

As a homage to the artist, who was born 125 years ago, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium presents in an extensive exhibition the original and very personal work of Léon Spilliaert (Ostend 1881 – Brussels 1946). It is suitable to make the point about the diversity of style, content and spirituality of those works, which, although influenced by the spirit of the ‘fin de siècle’, will develop far beyond Symbolism. His original interpretation immediately stands out in the dark wash drawings of his first years, when he painted sharp and acute compositions showing a sound analysis and a deep psychology. While taking a bright look at his surrounding world, he indulged in an intense retrospection from which he extracted visionary self-portraits. Spilliaert has acquaintances with the artistic movement of his time, confronting himself to the contemporary painters as well as writers. He is the precursor of a geometrical abstraction, a constructed and colourful Expressionism, a Surrealism mixed up with images and at the same time he redefines a vision of the space inspired by Japanese engravings.

The artist

Spilliaert who prefers to follow his imagination nurtured on literary images, philosophical talks and social realities observed behind the screens, starts a career far from each academic education. His original interpretation immediately stands out in the dark wash-drawings of his first years when he painted sharp and acute compositions showing a sound analysis and a deep psychology. While taking a bright look at his surrounding world, he indulged in an intense retrospection from which he extracts visionary self-portraits. Spilliaert has acquaintances with the artistic movement of his time, confronting himself to the contemporary painters as well as writers, like Emile Verhaeren, Maurice Maeterlinck, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Odilon Redon, Edouard Vuillard, James Ensor … He is the precursor of a geometrical abstraction, a constructed and colorful Expressionism, a Surrealism mixed up with images and at the same time he redefines a vision of the space inspired by Japanese engravings.

The work

In this exhibition, that will gather two hundred works together, both domains of Léon Spilliaert’s production, the autonomous and the illustration works, will be approached in their almost entire diversity.

As a first introduction, the small sized pen and brush Indian ink drawings will show the vision of a freethinker under the influence of his lectures: Friedrich Nietzsche, Lautréamont, Chateaubriand … On this occasion, the collection of the Belgian Royal Library will advisely unveil its richness among the set of more than 185 works they own.

Beyond the inspiration lectures, the exhibition will present the anthologies and books which the artist read and illustrated with hundred vignettes, wash-drawings in the margin, lamp bottoms and full page drawings which show the privileged relation that Spilliaert untertained with some writers like Emile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck. While looking at these books and albums, for his eyes scanned by electronic devices, the visitor will be able to discover an astonishing illustration technique which somehow announces a certain idea of rhythmical and synthetic imagery in connection with the strip cartoons. The attention will especially be drawn on Maurice Maeterlinck’s three volumes of Theater embellished with more than three hundred wash-drawings.

Visible similarities, spiritual affinities, direct influences, shared ideas and compositions will appear all along the exhibition circuit in juxtaposition of Léon Spilliaert’s works near some paintings, drawings and engravings of Odilon Redon, Alfred Kubin, Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery, Félicien Rops, James Ensor … And we do not forget to mention – a biographical fact – that drawings from Pablo Picasso’s blue period were shown in 1904 besides Léon Spilliaert’s dark wash-drawings in the windows of the Clovis Sagot gallery in Paris.

Inexorably linked with the evolution of his works and thought, the great topics, which are also illustrated by the diversity of experimented techniques, stress the different aspects of this extraordinary artistic personality. The large wash-drawings with thick veils of Indian ink for the giddy spells and solo walks in the night, for the sea and dyke sights, for the fascinating moonlights, for the fabulous airship adventure. Heightening with color pencils which modulate the shafts of light in the sky or the light glares reflected on the wet sands, the diagonal geometrics of the beaches. Touches of colour chalks for the self-portraits, streaks of fatty pastel for the tryouts with futuristic and expressionist characters where fishermen’s wives, sailor’s daughters and peasant women plant themselves on the harbor wharfs and along the piers.

When the anxious life of the artist in search of his own identity changes in a more serene approach of the real life, the watercolor becomes limpid and sparkling in the whimsical sea views, the landscapes with blooming trees. The fluid and covering gouache, mixed with casein, characterizes the atmospheric sunsets on the sea, the leaden skies, the visions of legend and imaginary scenes.

The return to the pure spirituality, to a form of active contemplation, at the end of his life, reintroduces the techniques of the watercolor and Indian ink treated with the pen and punctuated by slow reflection. Spilliaert’s gaze again becomes introvert, resting on the tree trunks, on the barks as knotty as wizened human faces.

Léon Spilliaert always appealed by a new vision of the world, he cuts, reconstructs and opens new ways of visualization. He spiritually transforms the reality in order to shock, to make the soul of the things and the human beings freezing or shuddering. His analysis is clear and straight to the point. He hides more than he shows. For the most part he works on paper or cardboard – he doesn’t understand oil painting well and is not a good painter. The wash drawings, watercolors and gouaches nevertheless correspond to a vision of an inventive painting despite the sobriety of technique.

This retrospective show continues the series of the great exhibitions dedicated to Spilliaert. Based on an original research lead with a view on a catalogue raisonné, its constitutes an attempt to present works which have been recently discovered or were no more visible to the large public since more than twenty years. There has been appealed to the following museum collections:
Royal Libray of Belgium, Brussels
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ostend
P.M.M.K., Ostend
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
Collection of the Belgian State, Brussels
Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit
Himeji City Museum of Art, Himeji (Japan)
the collection of Léon Spilliaert’s family
and numerous private collectors in Belgium, Paris, London, New York and elsewhere.

From his encounter with nature, a topic he developed in his whole production, he first of all retains the immensity of the sea, the extent of the beaches, the majestuous verticality of the trees. The human being preoccupies him in his problematic relation to the world. Lonelyness, expectation, existential anxiety, spiritual reincarnation are living feelings based on facts and reinterpreted on the same level of consciousness as the hard labour, the female seduction, the carnavalesque Catharsism, the oriental legend. During his whole career Léon Spilliaert surprises, disconcerts, rethinks and reinvents a creation form which leaves its mark on the thought of the Belgian art of the first half of the 20th century.

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