Exposition au musée

Léon Spilliaert: Self-Portraits

From March 06th to May 27th, 2007
Léon Spilliaert
Autoportrait dit "aux masques"
2005, achat, Galerie Derom
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Thierry Le Mage
Léon Spilliaert-Autoportrait au carnet de croquis bleu
Léon Spilliaert
Autoportrait au carnet de croquis bleu, 1907
Anvers, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
© Anvers, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Between 1899 and 1900, Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946) took courses at the Bruges Academy for a few months. So when he produced his first self-portrait, dated 2 December 1902, he was effectively self-taught. While this first attempt revealed an applied, almost academic, realism, the later drawings would be much more audacious.

From 1902, Spilliaert began to do illustrations for Edmond Demon, a major publisher in Brussels. It was through him that he discovered the work of Fernand Khnopff, Théo Van Rysselberghe, George Mine, Félicien Rops and James Ensor, and also that of French artists like Odilon Redon.

Spilliaert then produced self-portraits which were introspectively much more complex and penetrating than the 1902 work. This is particularly the case in the Self-portrait "with masks" completed in 1903. His tormented face, the eyes lost in the dark shadows of their sockets, is made more dramatic by a three quarters pose, leaving a whole part of the face quite indeterminate. This move towards Expressionism would lead to wild interpretations, becoming ever more macabre ( Self-portrait in a mirror, 1908).

Léon Spilliaert-Autoportrait au Chevalet
Léon Spilliaert
Autoportrait au Chevalet, 1908
Anvers, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
© Anvers, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

In a letter to Paule Deman, Edmond’s daughter, dated the end of 1904, Spilliaert himself describes his character as “anxious and feverish”. The physical suffering which the illness later caused him – he would develop a stomach ulcer – emphasised this disposition.

Spilliaert explored the possibilities of the self-portrait with great intensity in the years 1907–1908, a decisive period which saw him produce some very important work. In this same period, the theme of the mirror became a recurring element in his self-portraits. Spilliaert’s relationship with this image-creating object, like the artist, constantly wavered between seduction and repulsion.

If Spilliaert later forsook somewhat of this theme of self-representation, he did not abandon it totally, and would return to it several times during his career. The self-portrait was the key element in the painter’s research, and he used it to create many strange and troubling visions of himself.