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…

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