Léon Spilliaert 

Léon Spilliaert 

Biography of Léon Spilliaert  ( 1881-1946 )

"I'd like to extract the essence of what I see, the reality of what is, and much more than a finished image, the idea moves in the depths of the night. I was born into a strange world and all I have to approach it is the strangeness of sensations." Stéphane Lambert

Léon Spilliaert was born on July 28th, 1881 in Ostend, on the Belgian coast, into a middle-class family. His father ran a prosperous perfume business that supplied the Belgian king's court, as well as a hairdressing salon. A sensitive, introverted child, he showed an early interest in painting and literature. Fragile, a thinker and a dreamer, he was often lost in his inner world. During his school years, he developed a keen interest in poetry and philosophy, particularly Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and filled his school notebooks with drawings. In 1900, after only a few months at the Bruges Academy of Fine Arts, he abandoned his studies for health reasons and was struck off the Academy register. He then travelled to Paris with his father, to visit the Exposition Universelle, which featured the Symbolists.

With only a very brief artistic training, Spilliaert developed a personal style, working mainly in Indian ink, watercolor and pencil, with pen or wash.

In 1902, he began to work for the publisher Edmond Deman, spending time in Brussels and socializing with eminent writers and artists from local intellectual society. Specializing in symbolism, Deman published many of the authors to whom Spilliaert felt close, and in 1903 he executed 348 original Indian ink compositions to illustrate the three volumes of Maeterlinck's "Théâtre", testifying to the importance he attached to the poet's imaginary world. It was also at this time that he began his first self-portraits.

Introduced to the Parisian art scene by Verhaeren, with whom he became close friends, he soon exhibited alongside Picasso at the Clovis Sagot gallery, to whom he regularly entrusted works. A few years later, he met Stephan Zweig, who commissioned paintings from him, then Franz Hellens, who represented him in the magazine L'Art Moderne, notably by evoking the relationship he perceived between Spilliaert's art and the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. In the years 1910-1930, he was exhibited alongside such great artists as Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger, and enjoyed great success in Brussels and Paris, where several retrospectives were also devoted to his work. The two world wars obviously left their mark on him, and he had to go into exile twice, as Ostend was occupied by the Germans. His childhood home was destroyed, and he cut all ties with Germany, refusing to exhibit or sell works there. Always present, it was from the 1940s onwards that trees came to dominate Spilliaert's art, evoking a quiet, ancient wisdom and providing a setting for deep, solitary contemplation. Always in poor health, he died of heart failure on November 23, 1946 in Brussels.

Lulled by the writings of Nietzsche, Poe and Chateaubriand, his literary tastes form a coherent cosmos with his pictorial work; his formal research marries his human questioning, and his imagination takes the form of a permanent flight from reality. Projections of his interiority, his works express an inner anguish, a feeling of solitude, an atmosphere where the immaterial takes up a great deal of space. While enigmatic, Spilliaert's work is also extremely dreamlike, described as "a world of ghosts" by Leïla Jarbouai, where emptiness plays a major role; the void is inhabited, omnipresent, leading the viewer to imagine a scenario about what happened before the scene he or she is watching.

His work takes shape in an imaginary process that operates on the bangs of his solitude; expectation, the strangeness of nature, the threat embodied by the other - all this theatricality is achieved through an economy of means from which he succeeds in extracting a wealth of effects. Chromatic harmony, the extension of line, the unfolding of surface into plane - his extraordinary mastery of this plastic language is a force of expression at the service of his inner questioning.

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