23 February-25 May 2020


I went to see this at the end of February as coronavirus panic was starting to hit the streets of London, and people on the buses were beginning to wear faintly ridiculous face masks (given there were all of 20 cases reported in the UK at this point). So I was glad to enter the calm of the Royal Academy, with its polished wood and gilt edging. The Royal Academy would have no truck with pandemic panic.

I’d never come across Léon Spilliaert before. His art is beautifully atmospheric, with a limited palette, and the exhibition comprises a preponderance of moody night scenes, moody seascapes, moody domestic interiors that have prompted comparisons with Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), plus a smattering of moody portraits.

By all accounts Spilliaert’s work became more cheery and used a brighter palate as he grew older and embraced family life, but his earlier life was characterized by insomnia, partly due to a chronic stomach complaint, restlessly somnolent night wanderings and, judging by the work on display in this exhibition, an overwhelming sense of loneliness and existential despair.

Just the balm I need, you might think, sarcastically. But the work on display here until May is really beautiful.

The Gust of Wind (1904)

Indian ink wash, brush, watercolour and gouache.

Spilliaert was born in fishing town and burgeoning holiday destination Ostend, moving to Brussels later in life; he is considered a symbolist painter. Spilliaert’s paintings evoke a sense of sometimes oppressive and otherworldly stillness, other times haloed by a kind of haunting luminosity. Meanwhile, monochromatic portraits of still and foreboding rooms are suddenly illuminated with brief flashes of colour.

Young Woman on a Stool, 1909

Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil, coloured chalk and gouache on paper

I bought from the exhibition shop a “mantlepiece card” of the mixed media work above, and my family immediately noted my predilection for paintings of “seated women with their back to us”, given my existing reproduction of a work by Hammershøi (‘Woman Reading’, below).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to include self-portraits where possible in exhibition reviews. This particular self-portrait was one of the more disturbing I’ve seen, and the pupil-less stare and bleached out colours evoke a sense of dissociation and estrangement, combined with the visual effect of a photographic negative.

Self-portrait with Blue Background (1907)

Indian ink wash, brush, pastel, coloured pencil and coloured chalk on paper, mounted on canvas

This exhibition is definitely worth a visit, and an expanded show moves to the Musée d’Orsay in France in mid-2020 (assuming the museums aren’t shut due to the coronavirus – at the time of writing the Louvre has just decided to close temporarily amid fears over widespread transmission of the virus).

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