The carnivalesque imagination and dark humour of James Ensor

Belgium is celebrating 75 years since the death of one of its most celebrated artists with a packed programme of exhibitions. Often perceived as an eccentric outsider, Ensor was in truth not only an heir to Bosch and Breugel, but also a key figure in presaging both Expressionism and Surrealism

James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890

James Ensor (1860-1949), The Intrigue, 1890. Oil on canvas. 89.5 x 149 cm. Collection KMSKA — Flemish Community, Inv. No 1856. Photo: Rik Klein Gopink

In 1883, James Ensor (1860-1949) was one of the founding members of Les XX (‘The Twenty’), an avant-garde group of Belgian artists who went on to hold annual exhibitions in Brussels. Their aim was to keep pace with, and ideally surpass, the advances in modern painting being made in Paris.

By the end of the decade, however, Ensor had utterly fallen out with his fellow members, in part because they disliked the introduction of a startling set of characters into his imagery: masked figures, grotesque characters, phantoms, skeletons and devils. Striking proof of this fall-out can be found in Ensor’s famous painting Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (today owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles). This huge canvas imagines the Second Coming in the Belgian capital during a Mardi Gras street parade.

Look closely, and two figures can be seen on a balcony in the picture’s top left, one of whom vomits, and the other of whom excretes, onto a green banner. The banner, which is draped over the balcony, reads ‘XX’. Not surprisingly, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 was rejected for exhibition by Les XX, and Ensor would never again form part of a collective.

James Ensor, Zelfportret met bloemenhoed (Self-portrait with Flower Hat), 1883-88, at Mu.ZEE, City of Ostend Collection

James Ensor (1860-1949), Zelfportret met bloemenhoed (Self-portrait with Flower Hat), 1883-88. Mu.ZEE, City of Ostend Collection. Photo: Hugo Maertens

This anecdote plays into the long-held popular perception of Ensor as a brilliant loner — an artist who presaged Expressionism and Surrealism, and who lived to the age of 89, never marrying, never having children, and rarely leaving his home town of Ostend on the North Sea. (He also had plenty of odd habits, such as playing only the black keys on his harmonium.)

This year is the 75th anniversary of the artist’s death, and it’s being marked across Belgium by a programme of exhibitions called Ensor2024. In reference to his most famous motif, the organisers say they hope to reveal ‘the man behind the masks’ — which is to say, offer a fuller appreciation of their subject than exists currently.

‘Ensor tends to be remembered as a one-off figure,’ says Stefan Huygebaert, a curator at Mu.ZEE art museum in Ostend. ‘For many people, he amounts to paintings of masked figures and skeletons. However, by the end of this year, hopefully people will understand there was more to him than that.’

James Ensor, Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888. Oil on canvas, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

James Ensor (1860-1949), Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888. Oil on canvas. 252.6 x 431 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. 87.PA.96

Huygebaert is co-curating the opening show of the anniversary programme, Rose, Rose, Rose à mes yeux: James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium from 1830 to 1930, at Mu.Zee. The artist produced still-life pictures throughout his career, and they amount to around a quarter of his painted oeuvre. As a genre, it was well suited to a painter who enjoyed the comforts of home and the privacy of his studio — where, says Huygebaert, he was ‘able to choose and arrange his various objects at leisure and undisturbed’.

The exhibition features 50 still lifes by Ensor alongside a selection by Belgian artists who preceded and succeeded him — the idea being to show him as part of a well-established tradition.

Other highlights of the anniversary include James Ensor: Maestro, an exhibition at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels focusing on the artist’s love of music; and Masquerade, Makeup & Ensor at MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp, which looks at his work through the prism of debates around body image today.

James Ensor, Roses, 1892, on show in James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium from 1830 to 1930 at Mu.ZEE in Ostend

James Ensor (1860-1949), Rozen (Roses), 1892. Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, Brussels. Photo: J. Geleyns. On show in Rose, Rose, Rose à mes yeux: James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium from 1830 to 1930 at Mu.ZEE in Ostend

In Ostend, a show called James Ensor: Satire, Parody, Pastiche will focus on the satirical vein that runs through much of his art. This is being held in James Ensor House, a much-visited venue that combines the terraced house where the artist lived from 1917 until his death in 1949 and the property next door (an erstwhile hotel now converted into a visitor centre and exhibition space). There is internal access between the two buildings, with the former kept as close as possible to how it was when Ensor resided there, complete with damask wallpaper, flower-filled vases and a harmonium.

Ensor was born in 1860 to a Flemish mother and an English father. The former ran a souvenir shop; the latter was a one-time doctor with alcohol issues. Ensor studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, and many of his early works were fairly standard domestic scenes painted with a sombre realism.

During the course of the 1880s, however, his art underwent two major long-term changes: the marked lightening and brightening of his palette; and the arrival of his unconventional set of characters. Both of these changes are visible in a painting such as The Intrigue (today owned by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp). It depicts a hideous throng of masked figures, including a woman who holds what looks like a dead baby on her shoulder. She also points accusingly at a man next to her, whose right arm is being held tight by another woman. The precise nature of the scene is unclear — and certainly intriguing — the bold colour contrasts between the different figures’ outfits only intensifying the atmosphere.

James Ensor, (1860-1949), Masker en schaaldieren (Mask and Crustaceans), 1891. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, inv. 1958. Photo: Rik Klein Gopink. On show in Rose, Rose, Rose à mes yeux: James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium from 1830 to 1930 at Mu.ZEE in Ostend

Ensor continued painting his idiosyncratic subjects throughout his career, though they became less threatening and more playful as the decades passed. In the case of his still lifes, such as Mask and Crustaceans, their inclusion marked his personal twist on an old genre.

There has been much conjecture among scholars about where Ensor’s inspiration for the characters came from. The artist himself credited ‘the confused mass of eccentric objects’ in his mother’s shop, which had ‘surrounded [him] in childhood’. These objects included taxidermal oddities, carnival masks and skeleton costumes, all popular purchases among holidaymakers in Ostend and those attending its yearly carnival.

As will be explored in the exhibition at James Ensor House, there was also something satirical about the artist’s use of masks: a comment on the hypocrisy of bourgeois mores, and the way that those in positions of power (political, religious, judicial and medical) refused to show their true selves to the world, for fear of having their abuses of that power exposed.

James Ensor, Pierrot et squelettes, 1905, on show in James Ensor: Maestro at Bozar in Brussels

James Ensor (1860-1949), Pierrot et squelettes, 1905. KBC Bank NV, Brussels. On show in James Ensor: Maestro at Bozar in Brussels

It’s worth noting, incidentally, that in Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, barely anyone in the parade notices Christ’s presence at the centre of the scene, despite his golden halo — so self-absorbed, in Ensor’s view, had contemporary society become.

For much of his career, Ensor’s work was dismissed as too outré by art critics, and he included them in his list of reprobates in positions of power. He referred to them as ‘cowards crushed by my disdainful progress’.

Eventually, fame, success and critical esteem did come Ensor’s way, but it took time. He was made a baron by King Albert I in 1929, the same year that his largest exhibition to date — a career retrospective — was mounted at the Centre of Fine Arts in Brussels. It was there, in fact, that he belatedly debuted Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, which until then he had kept hanging privately at home. In the 1930s, he was named a commander of the Legion of Honour by the French state, and also began lunching with eminent guests, such as Albert Einstein, when they came to Belgium.

James Ensor in his Ostend studio with a row of late still lifes and self-portraits, 1937. Mu.ZEE, City of Ostend Collection

James Ensor in his Ostend studio with a row of late still lifes and self-portraits, 1937. Mu.ZEE, City of Ostend Collection. © Maurice Antony, DACS 2024

According to Xavier Tricot, author of the catalogue raisonné of Ensor’s paintings, no discussion of the artist’s influences is complete without mentioning his Flemish forebears from centuries past: Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

‘Ensor shared their grotesque motifs, carnivalesque imagination and flashes of dark humour,’ says Tricot. ‘He had great respect for the old Flemish masters, and it’s important to remember that — as eccentric as he may seem to us now, and as he may even have seemed in the late 19th century — he was part of a continuum.’

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As for that continuum after Ensor, his juxtaposition of fantastical subjects is often said to have paved the way for Surrealism, while his vivacious brushwork and colours were an influence on the German Expressionists. Ensor2024 will celebrate a fascinating figure, who on the one hand was inextricably linked with his mother’s small souvenir shop in Ostend, and on the other was a nexus in the passage of 500 years’ worth of Western art.

For further information on Ensor2024, see www.visitflanders.com/en/ensor2024

Rose, Rose, Rose à mes yeux: James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium from 1830 to 1930 is at MU.Zee, Ostend, until 14 April 2024. James Ensor: Maestro is at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, 29 February to 23 June 2024. Masquerade, Makeup & Ensor is at MoMu, Antwerp, from 28 September 2024 to 2 February 2025. James Ensor: Satire, Parody, Pastiche is at James Ensor House, Ostend, from 19 September 2024 to 12 January 2025

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