James Ensor
Royal Academy of Art, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

In 1933 the Belgium artist, James Ensor, met up with Einstein, when the latter was on his way to the States, for lunch on the coast near Ostend. Walking along the beach Einstein tried to explain the theory of relativity to the bemused artist. “What do you paint?” Einstein asked. To which the painter of masks replied “Nothing”. Whether this response was existential, bombastic or simply bloody minded it’s hard to say but it does illustrate something of the enigmatic complexity of one of Belgium’s most celebrated artists who, despite a British father, is barely known in the UK.

That father was a bit of a wastrel and a drunkard who married beneath him and, with his Belgium wife, ran a souvenir and curiosity shop in Ostend filled with an array of parrots, exotic masks, and even a monkey. These curios were to have a profound influence on his son’s later imagery, imagery that has continued to intrigue as well as baffle. Opposed to ideas of classical beauty, James Ensor was equally infuriated by any notion that an artwork might need to have a social function. An outspoken exponent of ‘the prestige of the new’, he considered the greatest artistic sin to be banality. Although he’d go on to have a profound effect on Expressionism and Surrealism, the orthodoxies of Modernism held little interest for him and, when he spoke of them, it was with limited understanding. Yet he produced many stunningly original works. Now the Belgium artist, Luc Tuymans, has curated a show at the Royal Academy that brings this enigmatic artist to a wider international public.

From the first we are drawn into a series of gloomy drawing rooms filled with heavy mahogany furniture and dark fabrics, the sort of domestic interiors made familiar by the paintings of Vuillard and Sickert. In The Bourgeois Salon, 1880, a woman stands by a draped table in front of a marble fireplace, her face obliterated. On the mantelpiece is an ormolu mirror, a heavy marble carriage clock and a pair of porcelain urns. Dressed in a rust jacket and black skirt she seems to be dissolving into the heavy impasto, as if being swallowed by the claustrophobic patterning of the room. We might be looking at a Belgium Hedda Gabler trapped by the conventions of polite middle-class society. This, like the wonderful Afternoon in Ostend, 1881, in which two women sit in the very same room weighed down with ennui, implies a strong critique of the society in which Ensor lived.

Little is known of Ensor’s private life. He barely left Ostend, lived largely with his mother and sister and never married. A photo taken by an unknown photographer in 1895 shows him painting in the studio at the top of his parents’ house at a stage when you might well have expected him to have struck out on his own. Much of his life was spent caring for his widowed mother, his aunt, and his divorced sister and her child. The intense self portrait of 1883, with full red beard, dressed in a woman’s sun bonnet decorated with a long feather, might be a bit of playful acting but his near contemporary, Freud, could have had a field day analysing his relationship to women.

Ensor’s body of work is eclectic. A superb draftsman, as is obvious from in his many drawings, including the portrait of his aunt and the holly tree in his garden, he also painted still lives of the rich domestic landscapes he inhabited. A table packed with vegetables and a bunch of freshly picked rhubarb or the underside of a fleshy skate illustrate his sensual relationship to these subjects.

Ensor’s focus was chiefly on drawing and etching where his idiosyncratic language shows the influence of artists as diverse as Odiline Redon, Goya, Bruegal and Houkasi. Also a gifted cartoonist, he displays a lampooning wit worthy of James Gillray in his Seven Deadly Sins and Les Mauvais Medécins. A miscreant cast of strange winged fish and flying monsters in his etching Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels undoubtedly pays homage to Breughel. But the biggest crowd, on my visit, was gathered around the black and coloured pencil drawing, The Baths of Ostend where, in front of bathing huts, boys French kiss, people fart and a couple of poodles copulate in the chaos of small figures. But it’s his stranger works that give him his unique visual voice.

Not only did he devote himself to depicting qualities of light, line and colour but he was intrigued by the grotesque and the macabre, as suggested by the masks and costumes of the carnival at Binche. Often he portrayed himself as a skeleton, hinting at what was transgressive, dark and other. It’s no coincidence that later Picasso would go on to plunder the ethnographic departments of museums in order to appropriate African masks to give his work a ‘savage’ authenticity. As in Freud’s writings there’s something ambivalent in Ensor’s relationship between the ‘primitive’ and the ‘civilised’, which so exercised the fin de siècle mind. Belgium, under King Leopold II, was, after all, one of the most vicious colonial powers of the late 19th century. The notorious Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s seminal Heart of Darkness mounts, in an act of extreme depravity and a terrifying demonstration of power, skulls on staves in a jungle clearing of the Belgium Congo.

So much of what went on at the end of the 19th century in bourgeois society was about keeping up appearances and covering things up that the mask became a metaphor for this with its illusions to the primitive, the chthonic, the deviant, the veiled and the hidden. The exhibition takes its name from the painting The Intrigue of 1890, which depicts a Mardi Gras carnival. Here masked figures can anonymously indulge in licentious and transgressive behaviour. Gradually Ensor’s studio was to become a theatrical space in which he played out his imaginary dramas that were part social commentary and part a mining of the Freudian subconscious.

It was The Intrigue that as a youngster of 16 Luc Tuymans, saw in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Hunsten in Antwerp and which sparked his interest in the Ensor. This is certainly a valuable reappraisal of Ensor’s work but little is added to our understanding of this intriguing painter by the inclusion of a few carnival masks, a feathered headdress and a smattering of Tuyman’s own work. It’s simply a distraction. Ensor is intriguing enough to stand on his own.


The Intrigue, 1890
Oil on canvas, 90 x 149 cm
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw.
Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Skate, 1892
Oil on panel, 80 x 100 cm
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan
© DACS 2016In

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