Discover the Spilliaert House in Ostend

Think of Belgium’s premier seaside resort and art and the name of the symbolist Ostend master James Ensor (1860-1949) immediately springs to mind, but there is a second symbolist painter from the same city who equally deserves attention: Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946).  Today Spilliaert has his own “House” in Ostend and it’s here that new exhibitions on this exciting graphic artist and painter are regularly staged.

A generation younger than James Ensor Leon Spilliaert was one of the most important Belgian artists of the first half of the 20th century. Works of both painters can be admired in museums across the world and in Ostend at the local Mu.zee Museum, but since 2016 Ostend also boasts its own Spilliaert House. New exhibitions, putting the artist in the spotlight, are staged twice a year fulfilling the centre’s ambition of bringing Spilliaert’s work to as many people as possible and promoting scientific research into the painter. The present exhibition, “The Secret City – the Ostend of Leon Spilliaert”, is the sixth to be staged here. All the works come from private collections and cannot be viewed in a museum.  Many of the works have never been on public display before.

The Spilliaert House is located in part of Ostend’s Thermae Palace that with its Venetian Galleries dominates the seafront at Ostend. It’s a fitting location for an artist who was known to wander the streets and boulevards of the city by day, but preferred to stroll along the promenade and its Venetian Galleries by night seeking inspiration in the busy port city that also doubled as a bustling and fashionable resort before the Great War. Like many Spilliaert was most at his ease during off-season, when Ostend can be a rather desolate place.  This played well with the artist’s penchant for melancholia and solitude. Here he sought inspiration with the sea and port providing subject matter for many of his greatest works.

Ostend was and is a city with many faces: in Spilliaert’s day fishing had a far greater impact on the city’s life than today, there were the everyday people of Ostend, but also well-to-do visitors, who frequented the gaming rooms of the Casino and the race course, the Wellington Hippodrome, located opposite the Spilliaert House.   All his life Spilliaert observed the goings on in the city of Ostend with a particularly personal eye: the splendid architecture of this fashionable resort, but also the thriving fishing industry and commercial port.  Largely self-taught Spilliaert hoped to make a career for himself as an illustrator.  He was a great fan of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He used charcoal, gouache, pastels, water colours and Indian ink in his works, often in combination, and is perhaps a greater graphic artist than a painter.

The present exhibition “The Secret City – the Ostend of Leon Spilliaert” focuses on works that betray Spilliaert’s very personal view of Ostend. The exhibition takes the visitor back to the Ostend of the turn of the last century, when Spilliaert returned from Paris where he had hoped to find fame as an illustrator, the years running up to the Great War, the war years and the first years of peace until 1926.

Ann Adriaens-Pannier is the Spilliaert House’s curator and honorary curator of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. “We try to complement what is on show in museums” she told Het Laatste Nieuws.  “There are so many works that the public at large never gets to see and that is such a shame.  Some people claim Spilliaert isn’t interesting after 1915.  I want to prove them wrong! He’s a pioneer in so many fields.”

During the war Spilliaert is obliged to serve in the civil guard. Ann Adriaens-Pannier: “It’s not a chore he enjoyed.  You notice his works from this period betray a far more romantic character.  There are many views of the parks of Ostend where he spent a lot of time.  Interesting too is an aquarelle depicting the bombing of Ostend.”

Ms Adriaens-Pannier is convinced many works by Spilliaert, unknown to a wider public and possibly also to the owners themselves, are hanging on living room walls in the Ostend area. A special experts’ day is being organised on 7 September to allow people to get works scrutinised by an expert.  “I hope to discover ten new works on one day” Ann Adriaens-Pannier told Het Laatste Nieuws.  

All the works on show come from private collections at home and abroad.  Seventeen works have never been exhibited previously. Postcards with historic vistas of Ostend complement Spilliaert’s view.

This painting shows a building called the “Pulpit” that once stood in the fishers’ quarter.

The Spilliaert House in Ostend is located in the West Rotunda of the Thermae Palace at the end of the Venetian Galleries on the promenade as you walk out of the city.  The address is Koningin Astridlaan 7, Ostend.  The current exhibition “The Secret City – the Ostend of Leon Spilliaert” runs until 13 October.  In the summer it’s open daily from 11AM till 5PM during the school holidays and out of season at the weekend. Admission to the current exhibition is 5 euros, though there are concessions and children up to 10 get in free. The Spilliaert House is among the venues participating in Ostend’s Museum Night on 31 August, when the House will be open from 6PM till 10PM free of charge.