James Ensor may not have travelled much physically but in his mind he went to some very strange places indeed. His work runs the spectrum from fairly traditional landscapes and impressionist pieces through to Hieronymus Bosch inspired grotesques and political satire to the sort of thing I'd have doodled in the back of my Social Studies book in the early eighties.
The Royal Academy's recent James Ensor:Intrique was a fascinating look at an artist who'd hitherto only been on my periphery. It'd been curated by another Belgian artist Luc Tuymans who'd taken the liberty of including a few of his own works in the show. And why not? He's a well-known, well-respected artist in his own right. But, at the RA, it was Ensor who stole all the plaudits and it's Ensor who I'm concentrating on here.
Born in 1860 in the coastal city of Ostend to an English father and a Flemish mother Ensor's upbringing was, that old cliché, a tale of contrasts. On one hand Ostend was becoming the 'Queen of Belgian beaches', playing host to the masked Dead Rat Ball, and was frequented by King Leopold I, the first king of Belgium. A grisly result of the constant development was the accompanying disinterment of mass graves from centuries past. Many of them victims of the Siege of Ostend during the Eighty Years' War when Holland sought independence from Spanish rule. The warm, busy summers contrasted with the bleak, desolate winters and Ensor's work echoes this duality.
His mother and aunt ran a shop selling curios, seaside souvenirs, chinoiseries, and masks. Again these would come to populate, inform, and exoticise his work. Not that this was particularly apparent in nascent works like Bourgeois Salon (1880) and Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise (1889), both below. The former borrows the colours of the Impressionists and the Post-impressionists, even verging on Fauvism, whilst the latter nods to the sun bleached experimentalism of late era Turner who'd died earlier that century.
Ensor left school at sixteen and went to study at the Academie royale des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels for three years. He achieved little success and felt badly treated and misunderstood by his tutors. Disillusioned by the strictures and formalities of the establishment he co-founded a group called Les Vingt (Les XX) in 1883 and they invited big name artists like Cezanne, Monet, Seurat, and Pissarro to exhibit alongside the emerging Belgian talent.
Despite this opening up possibilities of travel for Ensor he determined to remain independent and chose to stay in Ostend for the rest of his life with only occasional brief trips to England, France, and Holland.
The exhibition jumps about a bit chronologically so it's tricky to keep track with Ensor's development. Therefore it's probably best enjoyed as an overview of his career rather than a full retrospective. In fact the show concentrates only on the first half of Ensor's life as by the early 1900s he was focusing his energies on composing music and playing the penny whistle and harmonium.
Even though they weren't appreciated at the time (though the Belgian establishment later relented and, after relinquishing his British citizenship, Ensor received the title of Baron from King Albert I) there's still a lot to enjoy in works like Calvary (1886) and 1905's Comical Meal, both above. Ensor's use of masks is highly prevalent and, in fact, the Symbolist poet and Ensor's biographer Emile Verhaeren referred to him as 'the painter of masks'.
Devils Thrashing Angels And Archangels (1888, below) shows Ensor really cutting loose and letting his imagination run free. Peculiar Insects, from the same year, and Bad Doctors (1895) adopt a biting satire way ahead of their time. It's almost as if Ensor is utterly disgusted by all humanity. Witness the grim reaper overseeing an horrific surgery scene in which a 'doctor' pulls entrails (or are they sausages?) from a patient's gut!
1887's The Pisser shows a top hatted gentleman urinating. Presumably over the art world. It almost seems to come from a different artist to the one that, twenty years later, painted Chinoiseries with its (trademark) masks, vases, bright yellows, and melancholy blues.
1896's Flowers and Vegetables could almost be an old master. Although one imbued with the restless spirit of Van Gogh. The year before Ensor made Entry of Christ into Brussels. Considered his most famous work and a precursor to the Expressionism of Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde it reminds me also of the famous Mexican murals of Diego Rivera or David Siqueiros.
The dead bodies Ensor had witnessed as a youth reappeared in Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man (1891) and Skeletons in Fancy Dress (1898). Sometimes the animated bone men would represent Ensor himself. Sometimes not. Sometimes they appear to be offering a narrative, a critique, of societal mores. Other times they seem to be little more than decoration.
Seemingly ever restless, at the same time, he was painting traditional, if slightly disturbing, still lifes like 1892's The Skate - a skilful rendering of a typical North Sea catch. It's about as realistic looking as Fall of the Rebel Angels (1889) isn't. Again we see touches of Van Gogh and, dare I say it, signs of a slightly disturbed mind.
Dangerous Cooks (1896) seems to pass comment on the food preparation business in much the same way as medical practitioners had been previously lampooned but, switching tack yet again, Baths at Ostend (1890) depicts a naïve, though warm and tender, portrait of an innocent day's bathing. This is a work that, like much of Ensor's output, really needs to be seen up close and in situ. There's so much detail that a representation really doesn't do it justice.
Only a year after his leisurely and light-hearted Baths at Ostend Ensor was painting Skeletons fighting over a Pickled Herring (1891). Bold in colour. Brash in subject matter. It's no better, or worse, than a very early work like 1876's Bathing Hut but seems to come from a completely different place. If you triangulate those two works with 1884's Rooftops of Ostend (below Bathing Hut) you get some idea of just how much James Ensor was able to travel around within the confines of just one city and just one mind.
It'd been an education for me and one I'm very grateful for Kathy for getting me into for free.