The Belgian Coast has a lot more to offer than you may think. There are pleasant walking and bicycle tours. And there’s Belgian art! The Spilliaert House in Ostend is the first art museum from the series. A true discovery!
This private museum showcases the oeuvre of Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946). Léon Spilliaert is still relatively unknown to the larger public. Art connoisseurs however, have already embraced the art-historical value of his works. Almost two years ago, one of Spilliaert’s self-portraits went under the hammer for the record amount of 741.000 euros. And there is also the growing international interest. Auction houses and museums from New York and London have become more interested.
Léon Spilliaert is born in Ostend on 28th July 1881 where his father runs a well-known perfume shop. Purveyor to the Belgian Royal Court, it is Léonard Spilliaert himself who creates the fragrances and the bottles. Young Spilliaert helps his father with the design of the labels and the advertisements. And in a sketchbook he draws what he sees around him.
At the age of eighteen, he enrolls at the Academy of Arts in Bruges. But the various study objects put a strain on Spilliaert, and so he drops out early. He follows his gut instinct, following his own path. His poor health keeps him often up at night. That’s when he wanders around the house or the city, preferably on the promenade. It’s these moments that inspire him the most.
Léon Spilliaert is an atypical artist. He isn’t really a painter, but rather a drawer and a watercolourist. A painter works in layers, adding the accents of light on top in the finishing process. Spilliaert works the other way around, already adding the accents of light in the initial stage of the drawing. The image is visualized in his mind, which he translates to paper. At the time, he didn’t see his work much appreciated either. His drawings of ordinary objects such as boxes and bottles find little favour with the public.
The exhibition ‘High tide, low tide. Seascapes, promenade and beach perspectives’ starts with a work from 1900 made on a piece of brown paper with Indian ink and charcoal. Spilliaert likes using Indian ink. He also applies several layers to make different shades of grey. Typical in Spilliaert’s work is the simple composition, the pure and austere techniques as well as the strong contrasts between light and dark. Not to forget the diagonal compositions, what creates movement.
His most important works dating from 1904 to 1909 often reflect an uncomfortable, depressing feeling. Anxiety and restlessness prevail. Just like the bather, threatened by the sea trying to climb the steep sea wall. Spilliaert describes it as a very dark and lonely period in his life, carrying a huge existential burden
The contrast with the twenties couldn’t have been bigger. Spilliaert is happily married and he has a daughter Madeleine. This shows clearly in his work. His paintings are more cheerful and peaceful at the same time. He also starts to experiment, using different materials and adding more colour. So, he uses cardboard instead of paper, painting it with watercolour or gouache (a water-based paint) mixed with some casein, the main protein present in milk and cheese.
The most particular painting of the exposition is undoubtedly ‘Marine’ from 1923. Spilliaert made approximately 4.500 artworks of which 60 paintings with oil paint. ‘Marine’ is one of those paintings. It was found in an appalling condition but experts have succeeded to restore the painting.
The Spilliaert House was founded in 2016 by the successful businessman and art collector Mark Vanmoerkerke. The elaboration of the exhibitions lies in the hands of Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Doctor of History of Art (PhD) and Honorary Curator for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels.
An exhibition featuring around thirty works of Spilliaert is scheduled twice a year, the majority of the collection belonging to private collectors. On October 7, a symposium will be held at Thermae Palace on the conservation and restauration of Spilliaert’s artworks.
The museum of Spilliaert is situated on the promenade, at the end of the Royal Galleries. The entrance fee is 5 euros.
Many thanks to Dr. Anne Adriaens-Pannier for the tour!