‘Ghastly devils and obscene monsters’ — a guide to James Ensor
A primer on the Ostend artist who was described as ’a creator of fantastical sights, sometimes horrible, sometimes burlesque, most often both’ — featuring works offered at Christie’s
Born in 1860 in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend, where he’d spend most of his life, James Ensor (1860-1949) is largely remembered as a master of eccentricity. His father, an Englishman, was an alcoholic; his hard-working Belgian mother ran a curio shop that, notably, sold carnival masks. Later, these would work their way into countless Ensor images. Never married, Ensor lived with his sister for the majority of his life.
From the mid-1880s onwards, masks and the carnival came to dominate Ensor’s work, frequently featuring in his bizarre and often satirical paintings, which are entirely unique within the turn-of-the-century avant-garde. The mask, however, is just one of many motifs that figure repeatedly in Ensor’s oeuvre, which ranges from landscape and religious painting to ghost-and-skeleton-filled symbolist nightmares rendered in etching.
Yet for someone whose imagery was so idiosyncratic, Ensor inspired a remarkable number of artists, including those in some of the 20th century’s most important movements. His fantastical juxtaposition of people and things paved the way for Surrealism, while his vivacious brushwork and colours were an influence on German Expressionism.
From 1877 to 1880, Ensor studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. In his early career, he painted domestic scenes and still lifes in fairly standard fashion.
From the mid-1880s, however, his art became increasingly fantastical and grotesque. ‘I’ve added a few hundred more figures: ghastly devils, horrible animals, revolting and obscene monsters. I am very pleased,’ Ensor wrote of his 1887 painting, The Temptation of St Anthony.
Perhaps more significantly, Ensor’s work from this period on became highly politicized and deeply satirical. In piece after piece he skewered one group of Brussels society after another, from the government, doctors and judges, to the Catholic Church and the art establishment — and ultimately, the Belgian bourgeoisie as a whole.
Ensor was not just a painter, but also a prolific draughtsman. He first turned to printmaking in 1886, and over the course of his career produced some 133 images, the majority of them etchings. These are marked by agitated lines and (arguably) even greater exaggeration and visual invention than is found in his paintings.
In Death Pursuing the Flock of Mortals, the skeletal figure of Death flies with a giant scythe over a panicked crowd in the streets below. A woman, observing the spectacle from above, toasts the proceedings with the same cruelty and indifference that Ensor perceived across Belgian society.
Aside from personifications of Death, religious scenes were central to Ensor’s oeuvre. Scènes de la vie du Christ (above) is a monumental series of 32 coloured drawings, created between 1910 and 1915. ‘Ensor drew this series using the many different stylistic tools and themes from the life of Christ with which he was already familiar,’ says art historian and curator Eva Linhart.
Scenes from the life of Jesus also appear in Ensor’s etchings. In The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1889), the artist imagines Jesus arriving as a revolutionary political figure during the maelstrom of the Brussels carnival. Ensor regularly attended carnivals in Ostend and Brussels and was fascinated by the energy and noise of the crowds, and their latent potential for violence.
According to tradition, Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and was hailed as a liberating king; a few days later the same crowd shouted for his execution before the Roman authorities. In The Entry of Christ into Brussels, the fickle nature of the throng is suggested by the masked and grimacing faces, evoking a terrible sense of foreboding. The implication is that, were Jesus actually to have turned up in late 19th-century Brussels, he’d have been crucified once again.
As the critic Arsène Alexandre wrote in his review of Ensor’s exhibition at Salon des Cent in 1898-99, ‘James Ensor [is] a visionary, a Flemish artist in the purest tradition of old Hieronymus Bosch and Hell Brueghel [Pieter Brueghel the Younger]. A surprising imagination, an evoker of crowds, a creator of fantastical sights, sometimes horrible, sometimes burlesque, most often both.’
As Alexandre noted, The Entry of Christ into Brussels clearly owes a debt to the wild, teeming visions of fellow northerners Bosch and Brueghel. But with its vein of social satire, Ensor was arguably channeling his English heritage, too, specifically the biting cartoons of James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. ‘I feel more English than most of the English artists now slavishly imitating the early Italians,’ he wrote to a critic later in life.
In Belgium, Ensor has long been a big name; in 1929, King Albert even made him a baron. In recent years, his reputation has taken off worldwide. Retrospectives in major cities — perhaps most notably at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009, and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2016 — have helped to develop an international audience and collectorship for his work. Today, his market is strong and getting stronger.
This holds true for Ensor’s prints as well as his paintings, explains Alexandra Gill, Head of Sales for Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London. ‘Ensor is still something of an artist’s artist, and until relatively recently his prints tended to attract a very in-the-know, connoisseurs’ market,’ she says.
In 2014, Christie’s sold an almost complete survey of Ensor’s graphic work, offered from the collection of Parisian gallerist Mira Jacob. That sale featured a number of Ensor’s hand-coloured pieces, including the proof for The Deadly Sins Dominated by Death, which achieved £134,500 — the world-record price for an Ensor print. Ultimately, four of the top five prices for Ensor prints at auction were made in the Mira Jacob sale.
'Nowadays, Ensor’s appeal is much broader and more image-driven,’ Gill continues. ‘I think contemporary collectors gravitate to his work because of its sensibility — and the more gothic and grotesque the better. There’s an appreciation that this was one of the wildest imaginations in art history, and people increasingly would like a piece of it.’