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5 minutes with... A book of poems illustrated by James Ensor

Thibault Stockmann, Impressionist and Modern Art specialist, shares his delight in an extraordinary collection of 50 sketches made by the Belgian artist in a volume of his friend’s poetry — offered in the Art Moderne  sale in Paris on 20 October

‘I didn’t even know this existed. It's just amazing,’ says specialist Thibault Stockmann of this 1922 volume of poems illustrated by James Ensor. There are 50 drawings by the Belgian artist on its 80 pages. ‘You turn every page and find another drawing that plunges you into Ensor’s world,’ the specialist continues. ‘It’s extraordinary to find something like this.’ 

Ensor, the son of an English father and a Belgian mother, was born in the coastal town of Ostend in 1860, where he lived for most of his life until his death in 1949, aged 89. ‘Ensor developed a very specific world,’ Stockmann explains. ‘His art is often political, but in his own style, full of humour and satire. He is very well known for works that mock the judicial system, doctors — even the monarchy.’

James Ensor (1860-1949), Le visage des heures, executed circa 1922. 50 pages illustrated and annotated by the artist; signed with the monogram JE (on the title page); signed Ensor (on 39 pages of the poetry collection) and dedicated Souhaits a [sic] Claude Bernières une longue renommée durant ses courses vers les beautés son admirateur James Ensor (at the centre of the

James Ensor (1860-1949), Le visage des heures, executed circa 1922. 50 pages illustrated and annotated by the artist; signed with the monogram 'JE' (on the title page); signed 'Ensor' (on 39 pages of the poetry collection) and dedicated 'Souhaits a [sic] Claude Bernières: une longue renommée durant ses courses vers les beautés son admirateur James Ensor' (at the centre of the colophon). Estimate: €280,000-350,000. This lot is offered in Art Moderne on 20 October 2017 at Christie’s in Paris

Much of Ensor’s art was considered scandalous, with many works rejected for exhibition. Over time, however, his talent would come to be appreciated not only by his critics, but particularly by the German Expressionists, several of whom visited him in Ostend later in his career. ‘He was extremely influential for many of these early-20th-century artists,’ says Stockmann. 

In 1923, Ensor’s friend Hélène Avril — using the pseudonym Claude Bernières — won the Verhaeren prize for her anthology of poems, Le Visage des heures, published the previous year. In homage, Ensor covered the pages of an original edition of the volume with hand drawings in pencil and coloured crayon. 

'There’s satire, there are masks, still-lifes, city views. A lot of humour, too. You can link nearly every drawing to another Ensor work’

‘It’s extremely rare to find 50 drawings in one book like this,’ Stockmann says, ‘especially since they include all of the themes central to Ensor’s work. There’s satire, there are masks, still-lifes, city views. There’s a lot of humour, too.’ In fact, the specialist notes, ‘You can link nearly every drawing to another Ensor work.’

An unnumbered page at the end of the book, for example, presents a series of judges’ heads, each looking more bloodthirsty than the last. All the vigour of Ensor’s disapproval of the judicial system is expressed in this drawing, which recalls his pictures Les bons juges (1891) — sold at Christie’s in 2004 for £733,250 — Le grand juge (1898) and Le juge rouge (1900).


In one illustration Ensor depicts a procession fêting Bernières, clearly alluding to L’Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles, his 1889 masterpiece

In one illustration Ensor depicts a procession fêting Bernières, clearly alluding to L’Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles, his 1889 masterpiece

On page 76, Ensor depicts a procession fêting Bernières. Here, says Stockmann, Ensor is clearly alluding to L’Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles, his 1889 masterpiece depicting Jesus entering contemporary Brussels, surrounded by a mob-like parade.

Ensor’s illustrated Visage des heures  comes to Christie’s as part of a larger group of the artist’s works from a private Belgian collection. Among the others are a still-life oil painting from 1891, Nature morte au Magots Chinoiseries, étoffes (estimate: €700,000-1,000,000); a charcoal drawing of a skeleton (estimate €25,000-35,000); and an 1885 study after Hokusai (estimate €20,000-30,000). In recent years, Ensor has been booming on the secondary market.



‘He has always been followed in Belgium,’ Stockmann says, ‘but we’ve really seen international interest grow in recent years, and there’s always competition for top works.’ A 2009 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a show at London’s Royal Academy in 2016, have helped bring Ensor to new audiences.

Does Stockmann have any particular favourites among the illustrations? ‘One of the drawings I find most amusing is a sort of extended romp between a woman and a skeleton,’ the specialist confesses. ‘They kiss and hit each other — and by the end, the skeleton is totally in pieces.’