James Ensor: A man of many masks

Published 17 October 2016

The Belgian artist James Ensor painted life through the lens of the carnival, creating unsettling and often satirical works. Michael Prodger searches for the man behind these intriguing images.

  • 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.

  • James Ensor in his studio, c. 1935

    James Ensor in his studio, c. 1935

    Photo by Apic/Getty Images

  • 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).

  • James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring

    James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891.

    Oil on panel. 16 x 21.5 cm. Photo © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Photography: J. Geleyns - Ro scan / © DACS 2016.

  • The masked figures that people Ensor’s pictures are therefore both a real and a personal chorus. In a painting such as The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1888–89, an etching of which is in the show), masked characters mix with skulls, clowns and portraits of his family and public figures to form an aimless but threatening and dehumanised mob; they function as an Everyman in a menacing swirl around the isolated figure of Christ – a caricatured self-portrait. In a later work, Ensor and the Masks, from 1835 (not in the exhibition), a crowd of masks chuckles as the artist poses, and it is impossible not to read them as symbolising the incomprehension that met his work. For Ensor, while the mask hides the identity of individuals it nevertheless exposes the wearer’s true personality – malicious, giddy, foolish. It is not, in this sense, a mask at all. Ensor was always touchy about criticism and saw himself as something of a martyr as a result of the opprobrium that greeted many of his pictures. The critics, he thought, treated him with a “viciousness beyond all known limits”; he felt “surrounded by hostility” and subject to “mean vile attacks”. He depicted himself not just as Christ entering a Belgian Jerusalem but also nailed to a cross, dissected, as a decapitated head served on a platter to his enemies, as a herring being torn to bits by two skeleton critics (Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891, pictured) and more. The comédie humaine he depicted was not all that comedic.

  • However dark Ensor’s themes, his pictures are full of pearlescent colour and light. This nougat palette gives the paintings a visionary intensity.

  • However dark some of Ensor’s themes, his pictures are full of pearlescent colour and light. This nougat palette gives the paintings a visionary intensity: they would be less otherworldly, less surprising, if he had restricted himself to more shadowy tones. But then Ensor seems to have seen everything in heightened terms. In Mes Ecrits, a collection of pensées and artistic beliefs written in 1921, he outlined his vision of bliss: “What a wonderful, phosphorescent dream: to end in beauty, tenderly embraced by a passionate octopus! Lying between the cultivated mussels of Ostend and loquacious mermaids, I will offer myself up to the avid kisses of the lovely beasts of the waters of the sky, the earth and the sea.” It is hardly a monochrome dream.

    For all his originality Ensor’s work is nevertheless full of references to the artists he most admired, an admission perhaps that he wanted to be part of a tradition rather than an isolated figure on the edges. His still-life The Skate (1892) for example pays homage to Chardin’s The Ray (c.1726); The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1889; pictured) has the colour arch and maelstrom of Turner’s The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846); his Self-portrait with a Flowered Hat (1883) is a humorous interpretation of Rubens’s portrait of his sister-in-law (known as The Straw Hat, c.1622–25); Theatre of Masks is Watteau’s commedia dell’arte given an unsettling twist; and Goya, of course, can be found everywhere.

  • James Ensor, The Bad Doctors

    James Ensor, The Bad Doctors, 1892.

    Oil on panel. 50 x 61 cm. Photo collection de l'Université libre de Bruxelles © DACS 2016.

  • Although his allegories, however perplexing their meaning, are shot through with high art, Ensor’s greatest affiliation was perhaps with a low art form: the satirical caricature. When he turned to etching it was as though he used not just the medium but the language and motifs of James Gillray. In poking fun at the ineptitude of doctors, the absurdities of lust or sloth, or the abuse of the people by royalty, aristocracy and clergy, it is to Gillray’s rambunctious and scatological example that he looks. If Gillray skewered the social ills of Georgian England, then Ensor did the same in his etchings for fin-de-siècle Belgium. In plate after plate he arraigned the madness of crowds and the bestiality of the individual.

    From around 1900 Ensor’s output tailed off, just as he began to achieve the public recognition that had been eluding him: in 1899 the Albertina in Vienna bought a complete set of his etchings and both the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels and Ostend City Council bought paintings. Although he continued to paint, his focus turned to writing, which proved to be every bit as idiosyncratic as his painting.

  • Although his allegories, however perplexing their meaning, are shot through with high art, Ensor’s greatest affiliation was perhaps with a low art form: the satirical caricature.

  • He contributed pieces about art to various left-wing magazines and lectured on the iniquities of his age: “Oh, beautiful modernity! What crimes are committed in your name!” Among those crimes he numbered were modern architecture, vivisection, selling off the Ostend dunes for housing, the destruction of old churches and the local docks. He turned to music too, becoming infatuated with the harmonium, and in 1911 he wrote the music and libretto for a ballet, La Gamme d’Amour (The Scale of Love), staged in the Antwerp Opera House in 1924.

    Honours also came his way, culminating in 1929 in a barony awarded by Albert I. Around this time he requested naturalisation – previously he shared his father’s Britishness, a mark of love to the member of his family who had always supported his artistic career. Ensor senior is perhaps an unseen presence in his son’s paintings: he came from an elevated social background but never lived up to it, relying for income on his wife’s shop. She and her family mocked him and it is said that he took to drink and became the butt of Ostend night life. If his son needed an example of the cruelty of the masses and the fallibility of man he hadn’t far to look.

  • Ensor never married though he did have what appears to have been a life-long amitié amoureuse with Augusta Boogaerts, the daughter of a local hotelier he met in 1888. Wrapped in his personal world, he sat out the First World War in Ostend, although he managed to get himself arrested for drawing the Kaiser as a vulture. It was the intercession of young German artists who had come to admire his work that ensured his release.

    In 1919 the artist Léon Spilliaert wrote of Ensor living “in an old dilapidated house above a shop selling shells. Here he lives a sad and lonely life… among his marvellous paintings… He is vegetating in this ruined and ransacked town… And always the same: sweet and good, sensitive and worried, childlike.” He hadn’t, though, been forgotten by his fellow painters; Max Beckmann, Fernand Khnopff and Wassily Kandinsky were among those who visited, recognising in him a trailblazer and sharing his creed that art should be anything but banal and his belief that religion and science are “cruel goddesses, drenched in tears and blood”.

    In 1933 Ensor’s star was high enough that he was chosen to give a speech welcoming Einstein to Belgium. He did so in authentically Ensorian fashion: “Allow me to salute a guest of substance, a neighbour haloed in importance. Block of science wreathed in flowers by a colleague of the coast, perched atop a dune. To you, great thinker, handsome caster of convincing rays, your silver mane emits millenary illuminations…” What the physicist made of this encomium is not recorded.

    If the exact nature of Ensor’s art remains elusive, its potency is more tangible. In 1929, Ensor’s friend, the art historian August Vermeylen, described the reaction to the major retrospective of the painter’s work in Brussels: “anyone with even the slightest feeling for art was left with their head spinning as rapidly as mine. Bewildered and bamboozled, they could articulate their admiration only with a quiet stutter or a hearty curse – a curse that in those circumstances had the quality of a prayer.” The RA’s galleries during the exhibition will be a place for open ears as well as open eyes.

  • The country of carnivals

    The carnival that Ensor captured on canvas in Ostend is one of many annual parades and street parties that still take place across Belgium – the country has some of the world’s most rich and wide-ranging carnival traditions. Many have centuries-old roots in religion and folklore, and when Belgium gained independence in the mid-19th century, these rituals were resuscitated after years of suppression, fostering national and civic pride, as well as filling commercial coffers.

  • The most famous is the carnival of the Belgian city of Binche, which is located about 30 miles south of Brussels, and one can sense its echo in the Ensor exhibition at the Royal Academy. The show’s curator, the artist Luc Tuymans, displays in the RA’s galleries wax masks and an ostrich- feather headdress worn in the carnival, alongside his painting of a mannequin wearing the costume (Gilles de Binche, 2004, pictured). Tuymans produced the work after studying and photographing the costume in Binche’s International Carnival and Mask Museum.

    The Carnival of Binche takes its timing from the Catholic calendar, arriving each year on the three days before Lent. But its heritage dates back to a 14th-century pagan festival, and it has acquired many legends over the years, including the idea that its traditional costume was inspired by Inca dress. Those with the honour of wearing the red, white and gold garb are known as Gilles, and at the climax of their procession they throw hundreds of oranges into the crowds (pictured).

    Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans will be in the Sackler Wing of Burlington House from 29 October until 29 January 2017.

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