Léon Spilliaert at the RA

Artist, Insomniac, nightwalker: explore the incredible life and career of Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert at the Royal Academy of the Arts. Peter Gray reports.

Visionary artist Léon Spilliaert is the subject of an intriguing new show at the Royal Academy of Arts this spring.

The painter’s name may be relatively unfamiliar here, but Spilliaert’s best work withstands comparison with the work of the best artists of his day.

The new show, the first major exhibition about the artist in the UK, promises to offer art lovers a comprehensive introduction to the Belgian’s work.

To this end, the Royal Academy of Arts have assembled an impressive collection of the artist’s work, including several of his acclaimed self portraits, as well as an array of pieces focusing on Spilliaert’s hometown of Ostend.

In total, the new show will bring together 80 of the artist’s finest works, with many of the pieces in the collection coming from private collectors in Belgium, France and the USA.

Known for his hauntingly sombre nocturnal images, Spilliaert offered the viewer an insomniac’s eye view of his native Belgium during the first years of the 20th century. The artist’s best work perfectly captures the mood and tone of the hours immediately preceding, during and following dusk; that liminal zone where day and night battle for supremacy. For Spilliaert, dusk is a time characterised by desolate landscapes, long forbidding shadows, and an infinite array of haunting figures.

The viewer is never more than a voyeur in this strange, nocturnal world, looking on from a distance as the sombre music of the night plays on. Spilliaert continually leaves us in no doubt that we are outsiders, albeit privileged ones, in his landscapes: setting the viewer back a distance, and only ever showing us the backs of the actors in this otherwise closed world.

The artist was born in the small coastal town of Ostend in 1881. A happy childhood quickly gave way to a traumatic experience at school, with the solitary Spilliaert often resorting to playing truant in order to find somewhere to paint.

At the age of 18 Spilliaert enrolled in a fine arts academy in Bruges. The experience was to prove an unhappy one, however, with Spilliaert abandoning his studies a few months later.

From then on, the painter would be self taught, drawing inspiration from the writings of such towering giants as Edgar Allan Poe and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Much of the artist’s young life was characterised by the stomach condition that plagued him for many years. Spilliaert had suffered from stomach ulcers since he was an adolescent in Ostend, and for many years the condition left him unable to sleep.

To pass the time, the artist took to wandering the deserted streets of his native town during the night. Over time, Spilliaert grew to love these walks and the sights and sounds of the nocturnal city never left him. It is these memories that inspire the magnificent works that he left behind. 

The Léon Spilliaert exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is currently closed. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

For information on other great art exhibitions in London, please click here.

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What: art exhibition
When: tbc
Where: Royal Academy of Arts
Website: Léon Spilliaert