From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
What is one to make of the art of James Ensor? “Reason and nature are the enemy of the artist,” he once wrote and, true to his word, his paintings and etchings float free from these traditional moorings of art. It means that, like Goya and William Blake, his work – filled with masks, skeletons and cacophony – is unmistakable, always compelling and often utterly mystifying. It means too that he can be seen as, among other things, a joker, a Symbolist, an Expressionist, a proto-Surrealist, a utopian, a satirist and perhaps even suffering from mental illness (one of his etchings is a self-portrait showing him urinating against a wall on which is scrawled “Ensor est un fou” – “Ensor is a madman”). Though whether he was one of those things or all of them together is another of the many mysteries that awaits visitors to the RA’s Ensor exhibition, which is curated by Luc Tuymans, Belgium’s leading contemporary painter.
Ensor is often described as an Outsider artist but it is not an accurate label. He was born in Ostend in 1860 to an English father and Belgian mother and lived for almost all of his life in the seaside resort – appropriately, given his parentage, where the English Channel becomes the North Sea. But he was no provincial. From 1877 he received a classical training at the Academy in Brussels (where he managed to come bottom of almost every class) and the capital and its goings-on remained important to him for the rest of his life. In an age when travel suddenly became easy, however, he barely stirred: he lived to 89, dying in 1949, but made only a handful of trips abroad – three to France and two to the Netherlands, both just over the border, and a four-day visit to London. The wider world was not his world.
Ostend, however, was world enough. Initially he painted conventional seascapes and varnish- brown interior scenes, but that changed when he set up a studio in the attic of his mother’s souvenir shop and furnished it with props from her stock – masks, curios, shells, carnival costumes and chinoiseries. These gewgaws and the sea sky helped him, he said, to become “a painter in love with colour, delighted by the blinding glow of light”. The attic may have been a self-contained domain but Ensor did not turn in on himself; he kept up with his Brussels social circle and in 1883 joined Les Vingt (Les XX), a group of left-leaning avant-garde artists who for the next decade exhibited together in an attempt to keep pace with and develop the advances of modern French painting. Other members included Fernand Khnopff and Théo van Rysselberghe and the group invited the likes of Seurat, Whistler, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Monet to exhibit alongside them.
Although Ensor was no recluse, his art was so distinctive that it stood out as odd even among the heterogeneous Les XX. What Ensor developed in his Ostend studio was a way of turning reality into something strange and expressive, and he did this primarily through masks. Belgium and the Netherlands have a continuing tradition of carnival that has its roots in the Middle Ages and has been reflected in art through the phantasmagoria of Bosch, the kirmesses of Bruegel and the Dance of Death imagined most terrifyingly by Holbein. Masks conferred the anonymity that allowed the inversion of normality to happen. By Ensor’s time the more unnerving aspects of carnival had been superseded by a benign Mardi Gras, where men and women in disguise would roam the cafés, goading and challenging the unmasked drinkers to guess their identities and drinking at their expense until they did (The Intrigue, 1890, pictured).[…]
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