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Mysteries of Ensor

James Ensor

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 28–September 21, 2009, and at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, October 20, 2009–February 4, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Anna Swinbourne
Museum of Modern Art, 208 pp., $60.00

It is not a new thought that the Belgian painter James Ensor—who was born in 1860 and died in 1949—was bewitched by the shimmering, iridescent light of his native Ostend, the resort on the North Sea. The artist himself rhapsodically described his hometown’s pearly and rarely directly sunny light and marine air. At the Museum of Modern Art’s current Ensor retrospective, though, the significance of an atmosphere where light is always indirect, skies seem invariably cloudy and possibly rain-filled, and shadows therefore are rarely densely dark came through with a new force. It was Ensor’s affinity for this whitened, moist, and fleeting atmosphere, one could believe, that lies behind what is most appealing and distinctive about his paintings, drawings, and prints as objects: their often powdery, shifting surfaces and the way his forms—whether he is showing a group of carnival revelers in masks, the roofs of Ostend under a huge sky, or crowds pouring forth on a street—look as if they have only this moment come together (and will in another second move apart).

Ensor is more familiarly known, of course, for prying open, as it were, the lid of propriety on the box that holds our most impish and irregular thoughts. His best-known images present a kind of nonstop Mardi Gras, where goblins peer from behind furniture or swarm around us as we sleep, skeletons in top hats and overcoats try to warm themselves near a stove, and Satan’s hairy-tailed helpers drop down from above to round up various locals. Jurists, prelates, the Belgian king, military men, and officials of every sort (some of whom we learn are members of the art establishment) turn up as ogres. In the print Doctrinaire Nourishment, these upholders of society’s moral values squat on a ledge and defecate (each stream reflecting the relative heft of the man’s buttocks) into the open mouths of the horde waiting below.

As for the dog-demeanored and pudding-faced members of Ensor’s public, when they aren’t being fed we see them in throngs, filling to the brim wide-open places, aimless yet avid. The bearded artist himself appears often, sometimes as a skeleton, as in the wittily titled etching from 1888 My Portrait in 1960, and most memorably in a drypoint from the same year called Peculiar Insects, where he has the body of a beetle and is seen as in a police lineup, with a different kind of insect on either side of him. Perhaps Ensor’s signature pictures, though, are of people in masks—or are they people whose faces have become masklike? All the creepier for the informality of their groupings, they are sometimes shown facing us head-on, like a family momentarily brought together by a photographer at a wedding or graduation.

Ensor wasn’t, needless to say, the first artist to let loose this macabre and comically disturbing and sometimes scatological spirit, where repressed feelings are in a state of continual eruption and pestilential forces have taken control. His Flemish forebear Bosch, in the fifteenth century, laid the groundwork for such a view, and in the late eighteenth century, to take only two more examples, Goya, who also saw the disquieting possibilities of masks, populated scenes with phantoms, and the English social and political satirist James Gillray, in brilliantly colored prints that still can jolt, stocked his scenes with twisted and bloated adventurers in the fields of greed, vanity, and lust. Nor did Ensor put this predilection for the grotesque and the unnerving to rest, as a remark I overheard at the exhibition—“Doesn’t this remind you of Diane Arbus?”—attests.

Ensor’s version, though, particularly in the pictures he did between the mid-1880s and the early 1890s, which most commentators agree was his most inspired period, remains fresh and distinctive, although not for any clear-cut reasons. There is an underlying mysteriousness—at times pleasing and stimulating, at times genuinely baffling—about how he came to this demonic sense of existence and even about what it meant for him. Ensor’s very character is hard to pin down. With his view of people as dolts and killers, we might expect to encounter in him a temperamentally sardonic, even vengeful person, and accounts of his life tell of a man who, in fact, little doubted his inherent superiority and who, in turn, whether because of it or because his work seemed genuinely outrageous, was often at odds with fellow Belgian avant-gardists and suffered scathing reviews from the art critics of the day.

Yet how is it that, while his images of people in masks can be disturbing, and the skeletons that pop up here and there lend his pictures a ghoulish note, much of Ensor’s work, felt in the sensuous, protean, and virtuosic way he handles the materials of his art, has a devil-may-care effervescence? And how does the Ensor who was so observant of human foibles and deceits—and the unnerving in its many guises—square with the artist who, with his images of skaters on winter ponds, the rolling movement of the sea, and whitened and windy skies, seems to have been at heart a solitary nature poet?

At the Modern’s exhibition, the artist’s first full retrospective in New York since the Guggenheim’s retrospective in 1976—there was also a superb show of his works on paper at the Drawing Center in 2001—the Ensor we encounter is first of all a highly experimental artist who for nearly a decade clearly was in one long state of discovery about himself. Telltale signs of this, I think, are that he could be powerful or disquieting or funny equally in his paintings, drawings, and prints—each medium seemed to bring forth something slightly different from him—and he could be effective (or flat) whether his picture formats were huge, medium-sized, or minuscule. Keeping up with Ensor in his development, a viewer often feels he is trying to make something orderly and coherent out of what the artist seems to be saying he has no control over and is pure, ongoing, chaotic change. It is as if we can’t help wanting to put back in the box what he has sprung from it.

Seeing how Ensor pulled together the elements in his work, in any event, is practically inseparable from our experience of his fully developed art in itself. It is an issue, though, that has been muddied at the Modern by its having on hand too many of the artist’s early naturalistic paintings and not enough of his paintings or works on paper from the late 1880s, when he was truly flying. The portraits and views of darkened middle-class interiors and the townscapes in all weathers that Ensor did at the beginning of his career aren’t exactly empty. Often large in size—the densely atmospheric Rooftops of Ostend is more than six feet wide—they show how ambitious he was already in his early twenties. But being so big, they diminish the impact of his more personal, later pictures, which tend to be smaller in size; and, sadly, the works on paper at the Modern hardly compare in range or liveliness with those that the Drawing Center assembled.

No matter what works have been chosen, however, Ensor’s thinking can be elusive. This is especially so in his feeling for religious themes, where he seems to want mostly to portray an unearthly radiance and be a kind of modern Rembrandt. Christ appears often in Ensor’s work, whether preaching to multitudes or being crucified, and we read that Ensor identified with him as a hero and martyr. But Ensor’s Christ is the gowned, bearded, long-haired savior we know very well (and two enormous drawings in the show that have to do with him are plain musty). And the very issue of how Ensor came to include the fantastical and grotesque is like something that happens just at the moment when we blink or turn our backs.

It is said that he was initially inspired by seeing the work of the older French artist Odilon Redon, whose shuttered world often seems under the sway of the supernatural. But it might be just as important that Ensor, in his formative years, made brilliantly alive copies of the work of many earlier artists, including Daumier and Delacroix, and of the stylized figures in Chinese and Japanese designs. Ensor’s copies have not been included in the Modern’s show but they were part of the Drawing Center’s show and are reproduced in its fine catalog—and, looking at them, especially those of Japanese warriors rushing about in their ornate headgear, their faces resembling grinning masks, we feel we are a stone’s throw from the way Ensor will soon be treating his Belgian contemporaries.

Ensor was also in the habit of making comic and caricatural drawings in sketchbooks through much of the 1880s and into the 1890s—works that show a far more limber artist than the man who identified with Christ. At the exhibition, one of his sketchbooks has been digitized, and its pages can be seen by moving your finger back and forth on a screen. In these wonderful images, Ensor is like a brother to a number of graphic masters of silhouette forms, miniaturized incidents, and visual silliness and slapstick from earlier in the nineteenth century—artists such as Richard Doyle, Grandville, and Wilhelm Busch. Ensor in these vignettes sets up a kind of theater of metamorphosis, where every item he draws is turning into something else. The drawings where he rings change after change on his tall frame, beard, hat, umbrella, and the letters in his name may be the most sheerly delightful works he ever did.

But then surely Ensor’s biography has a huge part in his creation of an art that was by turns comic, grotesque, satiric, lyric, and fantastical. It is more than noteworthy that his parents and a number of his relatives on his mother’s side ran curio or curiosity shops in Ostend, where masks (for the carnival season) and shells and puppets and stuffed animals, among other objects, were sold. It is hard to imagine anyone growing up in such an environment and not being affected by it somewhat; but to think of a childhood spent in and around such a family business in Ostend makes one’s head spin. With its Lenten Mardi Gras madness, its casino, its spas, its endless beachfront, its visiting royalty, its dead seasons when no one was around, and its summertime seaside crowds, Ostend—a place that, like New Orleans, Brighton, or Venice, has represented a domain existing beyond society’s reaches—was one large curio shop to begin with.

Ensor, furthermore, never left it. Apart from a few years at art school in Brussels and longish visits there in later years, and trips now and then to London, Paris, and Holland, he lived in Ostend his entire life. He did his most important work in an attic studio he devised in the house he and his parents and sister lived in, where his parents’ store occupied the street level (and where family tensions possibly led to his father’s excessive drinking and death from “exposure” in his early fifties). After his mother died, in 1915, Ensor moved to, and spent the remainder of his life in, a nearby house that on its street level contained one of his uncles’ very similar shops.

Whatever the reason, at a certain point in the middle of the 1880s Ensor made a move that still feels shocking, but also courageous on his part—and not a little fishy. He had always made first-rate and often sumptuous drawings and sketches of people, city life, and aspects of the interiors of his parents’ home, and now he began adding to (or doctoring) these drawings, weaving in and around the existing images masklike beings and goblinlike figures.

He added realistically drawn faces and figures, too, making it seem as if there were apparitions in the ornately carved furniture. In these often densely detailed drawings, where it sometimes takes a little extra time to see the puppets on strings, say, dangling down on a street-scene construction site, we are given a foretaste of an aspect of movies and modern photography and a preview of work that first Francis Picabia and then Sigmar Polke and David Salle, among others, would be doing decades later.

From roughly the moment he began reworking his old drawings (he also reworked some older paintings), Ensor entered a zone where he could move with some ease from the fantastical to the satiric, and then on to Christ’s ordeals or images of watery realms. He could shift from skeletons playing clarinets and people in masks to visions of endless numbers of congregating people, such as the etching The Cathedral, where his ability as a miniaturist is staggering. In the full bloom of his art, Ensor not only skipped from subject to subject but more crucially he mastered entirely different kinds of picture-making.

In the 1890 painting The Assassination, for example, a team of murderous (and adorable) crazies in masks and party outfits are busy draining the blood from a victim in an amusingly horrifying surgical procedure. They are accompanied by music makers at the edges of the scene and, looking in from windows high up in the operating room, various hooligans dementedly cheering on the bloodfest. The painting has both a beckoning, delicately brushy surface and the awkward vigor of a street-corner puppet show, with Ensor taking amazing liberties in the sheer composition of the work—such as putting figures at its furthest edges, almost as if he were a Mexican folk painter making a little memorial picture on tin to be sold outside a church.

But then in the same year he could make the phantasmagorical work on paper White and Red Clowns Evolving, where innumerable tiny figures on a beach, some more creatures of fantasy than people and each a self-contained shape, fill up the space with their acrobatic contortions as far as the eye can see. We look at a phenomenally inventive sense of rhythmic balance and form that calls to mind Miró or the later Kandinsky in their handling of the diminutive, and at their respective best. Yet 1890 also saw Ensor make, incredibly, the painting The Tower of Lissewege, a fevered view of fields and an immense, cloud-filled sky. It is a work with a chalky and staticky surface that has none of the stylization of these other pictures from the same year.

To hear these pictures described, one might conclude that Ensor’s work, as it developed more fully, became increasingly centerless, and, to a degree, that is what happened. The Modern’s exhibition undoubtedly would have had a sense of an anchor and a climax if Ensor’s largest painting, the 1888 The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, had been included. Measuring some eight feet high by fourteen feet wide, the painting (in the J. Paul Getty Museum, and included in the Guggenheim’s 1976 show) was Ensor’s outright bid for a show-stopping masterpiece. It presents, emerging from a background distance where they are merely like grains of sand, a sea of masked and unmasked people streaming toward us (see illustration on page 26). Banners fly, clowns and politicians stand on viewing platforms, and Christ eventually can be located somewhere in the maw. With its powerful, posterish reds and greens, its delectably creamy and brushy surface, and its sense of an entire world on the march, this work, taken simply as an object, would have made the Modern’s whole exhibition revolve around it.

But in what it is saying, Ensor’s Entry takes us right back to the sense of a churning, blinking, rhythmic centerlessness that we get from his work even without this picture. It is a spirit we find when he is painting the sky and fields in The Tower of Lissewege and it is there in his feeling for arabesque forms and wavy parallel lines, evident when he delineates hair, the creases in a puppet’s clothes, or his clowns on the beach. It can be found in the way he shows the movement of the crowd before the cathedral in The Cathedral and in many other works where fields, beaches, or skies are overrun, sometimes to the point of nearly becoming abstractions, with people or phantoms.

The more time we spend with Ensor’s work, the more we can wonder if he drew masses of people so often not only because he was particularly frightened or appalled by the subject—surely few other artists have caught so frequently the surging and threatening nature of the massive crowd—but because it gave him what the subjects of the sea and cloudy skies gave him: a way of presenting undulant movement and flickering light.

Ensor has long been seen as a somewhat isolated figure in the history of modern art. As Anna Swinbourne says in the catalog of the show she has organized, “the diversity of Ensor’s work has enabled him to slip cunningly out of the grasp of anyone seeking to seize and place him, whether in an artistic movement or a historical continuum.” Yet in a few large areas he was very much a man of his time. Like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and his closer contemporary Edvard Munch, he was part of a generation that sought to build on and supersede the lessons of their immediate predecessors, the Impressionists. Perhaps without fully intending it, he, like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Munch, made an art that had the character of a quest and was essentially autobiographical, qualities that would hardly have been palatable to the Impressionists, who wanted to record experience with a scientific impersonality. Ensor was the most mercurial of these more self-involved painters, and his subject became his jumpy interior life itself, with its fears, idyllic longings, aberrant thoughts, and fantasies of martyrdom and revenge shown spilling forth one on top of the next.

For the younger artists of the 1880s, art in many ways revolved around the finding of an individual style. It was an endeavor that was accompanied by a desire to explore the possibilities in drawing and printmaking (and in Gauguin’s case ceramics and woodcarving) that the Impressionists would not have readily understood. It was an endeavor, too, that gave a sometimes wrenching intensity, fraught with hazardous relationships with colleagues, friends, or family, to the years when they were finding and realizing their respective individual voices.

Van Gogh and Gauguin died at relatively young ages, and while Munch and Ensor both lived to be old men, they died young in a certain sense also. They were clearly depleted by the work they expended in their prime. Ensor’s most innovative pictures were made by the time he was thirty. By some point in the 1890s, and certainly by the early 1900s, he began to be less and less bombarded by his inner demons, and his later pictures, represented by a single room at the exhibition, became drier in texture and more obvious in their satire. In his last decades, he was given one honor after another (by many of the very institutions he had ridiculed as a young man). But in his studio—like Munch in his own later decades—he did little more than revisit, with increasingly less force, themes that dated to the 1880s and 1890s.

Ensor’s affinities with the art of his era, however, go even further. Like the work of Seurat, Walter Sickert, and the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso—all four were born within a year or two of each other—his pictures, it can be said, represented a drive to see in atmosphere and light a storytelling or psychological presence. In Seurat’s conté crayon drawings, sheer darkness and light have more strength than corporeal beings, while in Sickert’s painted London interiors light is broken into particles that can swirl around his people with blizzard force. In Rosso’s wax and bronze portraits and figure studies, faces and bodies are hardly more present than the cloudlike realms they are trapped in. And we feel in each case, where the enveloping air has a life of its own, that the artist, with a certain detachment or glee, is seeing how far he can go in obliterating what had been a tenet of art: the solidity of the figure and face.

In works by these artists, light and atmosphere become increasingly invasive and almost dangerously palpable. It is a process that Ensor, perhaps given a head start in the matter by Ostend’s irregular weather, drove home to its conclusion.

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