20 October 2009 – 4 February 2010
When exhibited in Belgium – at the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels or the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp – James Ensor (1861-1949) comes across as an innovative, tormented Belgian artist. At the Musee d’Orsay, his paintings are seen as the original, profound work of a 19th-century artist located between naturalism and modernity. At the MoMA, they fit brilliantly and naturally into the great avant-garde movements favoured by that museum.
This great originality was underscored by MoMa director Alfred Barr in 1940, when he showed the Terrible Tribulations of Saint Anthony (1887) and hailed Ensor as the most daring artist of his day.
Sixty years after his death, Ensor’s legacy is still divided between his Belgian or even Ostend roots and international recognition. It is split between the solid naturalism of his early years and the acid, virulent world of the masked, skeletal fantasies that prance, grimacing and colourful, through much of his career.
Almost 150 years since his birth, Ensor still defies classification and the label “the painter of masks” that the Belgian critic Emile Verhaeren bestowed on him does not cover the whole of his unclassifiable, prolific, polymorphic oeuvre.
The MoMA and the Musée d’Orsay have decided to take a new look at Ensor and, 110 years after the miserable failure of his first exhibition in Paris, to probe his impenetrable masks and menacing skeletons once more. To confront them with the 20th century to which he clearly belongs, having witnessed the birth of Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism… and even, as he boasted, “anticipated all the modern movements.”
And to put Ensor squarely in the 19th century, of which he was an obstreperous son, claiming a definitive place, “between Manet and Van Gogh…”.
The four-part exhibition of ninety works – paintings, drawings and engravings – is an excellent opportunity to reassess this still strange painter, who stands somewhere between Manet, Van Gogh and all the modern movements.
A Form of Modernity
The exhibition begins with Ensor’s early work. He trained at the Brussels Academy but turned his back on his academic training and returned to his hometown of Ostend to work. There he explored his surroundings indoors and out in a large number of paintings and drawings. He produced landscapes, still lifes, and portraits as well as “war scenes” staging his sister, mother and aunt.
The critics, such as Emile Verhaeren who wrote a monograph on him in 1898, drew a parallel with French Impressionism, but Ensor vociferously denied this, arguing that his research into light was deeper and more subtle. “I have been wrongly lumped with the Impressionists, open-air dabblers in love with pale colours. The form of light and the way it distorts lines were not understood before me. Nobody thought it was important and painters trusted their eyes. The Impressionist movement left me quite cold. Edward Manet did no better than the old masters,” he declared in 1899.
La Mangeuse d’huîtres [Woman Eating Oysters], the culmination of his early modern or naturalist works, was refused by the 1882 Antwerp salon. Ensor then campaigned to free art exhibitions from state control and worked to become the leader of a school. He co-founded the XX group. In 1883, masks burst into his work and Ensor reworked some of his paintings from the early 1880s, adding the masks and skeletons which from then on peopled his world.
“Light ennobles me”
Ensor grew up by the North Sea and developed a fascination for light. Unlike Monet, in particular, a guest exhibitor at the XX in 1886, for whom light was a multitude of fleeting effects, Ensor saw light as a whole.
A wholeness which generated a mystic vision, expressed in his series Les Auréoles du Christ [The Halos of Christ] or Sensibilités de la lumière [Sensitivity to Light], in 1885-86. These huge drawings failed to impress at the XX exhibition in 1887. The critics praised Seurat’s Dimanche à la Grande Jatte [Sunday at La Grande Jatte] but were bewildered by Ensor’s submission.
Hurt, disappointed and in despair (he confessed “Their scathing criticism shook my beliefs for a while and I was tormented by doubts. I have a very impressionable and sensitive character.”), Ensor retreated behind his masks and skeletons. The huge Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles en 1889 [Christ Entering Brussels in 1889] (Los Angeles, The Paul Getty Museum) was his answer to Seurat’s painting and his detractors. His new style with its brighter colours, masks and banners and a parade of strange characters signalled a new period in his work. He later explained: “Here you can see a change in my manner. I had always mixed my paints to obtain richer, varied tones.
Unfortunately the mixing adulterated some colours and a few of the paintings went black. So I changed the way I painted and used pure colours. Logically I tried for violent effects, particularly in the masks which are predominantly bright. I also liked the masks because they offended the public who had been so mean to me.” (1898)
“Bizarreness rules everywhere”
The carnival and its masks are part of Ensor’s family tradition. In 1887, when he was feeling desperately misunderstood, he lost his beloved father and grandmother. Death now joined the masks. They paraded or performed enigmatic pantomimes. At the same time, Ensor took his revenge for attacks on his work with a series of paintings of a vehemence and freedom unequalled in the late 19th century.
112 self portraits
Self-portraits were another outlet for Ensor’s terrible feelings of persecution. He painted himself throughout his life. In his early paintings he is young and dashing, hopeful and spirited, sad but sometimes sumptuous. But his rancour twisted his image through multiple metamorphoses. He morphed into a beetle, a lunatic, a skeleton… he identified with Christ and then a wretched pickled herring. He caricatured and ridiculed himself… He was the playwright and puppet of comedies and tragedies in which he sometimes cast his detractors and cruelly settled old scores. After 1892, his face stared out of paintings other than self-portraits. Ensor turned into a character painstakingly preparing his posterity and his legend.
A few objects
A few objects, masks, shells, a mermaid from the Ensor family home and curiosity shop are dotted through this weird, fantastic world, tell-tale signs of his interaction with his strange surroundings. In 1908 Verhaeren described his studio, cluttered “with an odd assortment of masks, rags, withered branches, shells, cups, jars, threadbare rugs, books lying on the floor, prints piled on the chairs, empty frames propped against the furniture and the inevitable death’s head observing it all through its hollow eye sockets.” The curiosity shop was no better “with its wide shop window crammed with curios (…). It was there, among the shells and mother-of-pearl, Chinese vases and Japanese lacquer work, variegated feathers and multicoloured screens that the artist delighted in orchestrating his rarest and richest symphonies of colour. Notes at once tender and powerful, subtle and brutal, sober and brilliant which he set vibrating on the slim pretext of some Oriental
trinket in vogue at the time! And the prettily rimmed shell that some dour bourgeois would set on his fake marble mantelpiece will by magic and some obscure artistic process become a miracle of triumphant colour that will dazzle the finest rooms of modern museums. Ensor is at home amidst this exotic trivia and the glistening, vitreous spoils of the sea.”
Curated by: Laurence Madeline, curator at the Musée d’Orsay;
Anna Swinbourne, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Designed by: Pascal Rodriguez.
Media partners: France Inter, Libération, Paris Première, Thalys.