“I’m a creampuff gone rotten” – James Ensor on art and life

Published 25 November 2016

An anti-establishment artist with plenty to say, James Ensor’s scribblings are just as eccentric as his paintings. As an insight into his whimsical works, here’s a selection of Ensor’s inner musings – on art, critics and his naughty pug.

  • “My writings, or self-important swaggerings presaging a final collapse in the filthy swamp”

    This is a subtitle that James Ensor used in his writings repeatedly, which should give you some sense of just how eccentric this celebrated Belgian artist was – and what is to follow below. A well-established painter by his later years, Ensor increasingly turned to writing as an additional means of expressing his ideas and opinions – often in the same bizarre, sometimes macabre style that characterises his paintings. An avid letter-writer and regular contributor to journals and newspapers, his surviving texts cover art criticism, family stories, satirical reviews and philosophical musings. His dark humour and unique perspective offer us another insight into the macabre and enigmatic spectacles in his paintings.

  • On art...

    A correct line cannot inspire lofty feelings. It is the enemy of genius, incapable of expressing passion, anxiety, struggle, sorrow, enthusiasm, poetry.

    Attending art school in Brussels as a young man, Ensor failed to impress his teachers with his unusual use of colour and light. In a sketch he wrote summarising his time at the Academy, the professors complain that the student “does the opposite of what [he is] told”. In the letter quoted above, written to his friend Pol de Mont in late 1894 or early 1895, Ensor affirms his belief in the power of bold experimentation in art; later on in the same paragraph, he expresses his huge admiration for the work of the composer Richard Wagner.

    Cannoniers to your guns! Brace at your batteries! Blast night and day… Art clears a path by means of cannon shots.

    Ensor’s art was dismissed by critics and the public for much of his early career. By the 1900s he was well on the way to achieving a respected place within the Belgian artistic canon, but he remained as rebellious and opinionated as when he was a struggling, marginalised oddity. The lines above are part of an emphatic call to arms Ensor wrote in the 1900s, encouraging his fellow artists to defend artistic freedom and pursue innovation.

    Oh, beautiful modernity! What crimes are committed in your name!

    Over the course of his life, Ensor campaigned to preserve several historic buildings in Ostend, including the old docks and a church tower. According to Ensor scholar Herwig Todts, his efforts met with varying success, causing him to issue the plaintive cry above on more than one occasion.

    The artist must invent his style, and each new work demands its own.

    Written in a letter to the art critic André de Ridder, this bold statement from Ensor accounts for the notable diversity of his output; he left behind paintings, writings, compositions, etchings and even crayon drawings.

  • James Ensor's world

    The intense light of the North Sea coast had a profound effect on the Belgian painter James Ensor, as did his hometown Ostend’s colourful carnival tradition, and the contents of his family’s curiosity shop. Step into Ensor’s world in this short video – narrated in his own words, derived from his letters and his poetic musings on art. Watch this video on YouTube.

    • On science...

      Let us all promptly praise the great Einstein and his relative orders, but condemn algebraism and its square roots, the surveyors and their cubic reasons. I say that the world is round…

      In early 1933, Ensor had an improbable meeting with Albert Einstein, when the latter passed through Belgium after fleeing Germany. From these later writings, it appears that Einstein’s theories did not altogether impress the artist.

      James Ensor, Plague Here, Plague There, Plague Everywhere

      James Ensor, Plague Here, Plague There, Plague Everywhere, 1888.

      Black, blue and red chalk and graphite on paper. 22.5 x 30 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, inv. 2742R Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016.

  • I’m nasty, wicked, incapable, ignorant, a creampuff gone rotten.

  • On critics...

    Why satisfy the vile desire of the crowd… a desire without nobility, a curiosity that weighs heavily on us, the super-sensitive. Let us resist communion with the mob! To be artists, let us live in hiding!

    Facing an onslaught of critical and public disparagement, Ensor unsurprisingly sometimes lashed out at his detractors in his writing. Here, he makes a not-entirely-convincing case for ignoring the opinions of all non-artists and shunning public approval.

    Disparagement beats down on me like hail. My umbrella is always to hand; I’m abused, I’m insulted, I exist, I’m mad, I’m simpleminded, I’m nasty, wicked, incapable, ignorant, a creampuff gone rotten.

    Ensor wrote this in his later years, looking back at the ways critics had received him as a young painter.

  • James Ensor, The Intrigue

    James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890.

    Oil on canvas. 90 x 149 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, inv. 1856 Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016.

  • On his relationships...

    Undoubtedly, the artist doesn’t like women because he is always abusing them in his compositions.

    This was written in a letter to Ensor’s friend, Pol de Mont, in 1894, describing his painting The Temptation of St Anthony. He also penned a poem titled On women, which compares its titular subject to a “Mirey pool, crawling with bad beasts” and “Horrible cess-pit, teeming with leeches”. We don’t know how much these reflect his true views of women, although we do know that he never married or left his family home.

    Our minuscule pug… is very smart and quite sensitive. I’ve played Wagner for him; he let out heartrending cries and bit Mitche nastily. He entertains us greatly.

    Mitche was Ensor’s sister, with whom he lived for the majority of his life. This scene was described in an undated letter to Mariette Rousseau, a close friend with whom he maintained a 25-year correspondence totalling over 350 letters.

    I don’t have children, but light is my daughter.

    As a painter, Ensor was preoccupied with light throughout his lifetime, becoming particularly impassioned when discussing the subject in this excerpt from a speech made in the 1930s.

  • I’ve added a few hundred more figures: ghastly devils, horrible animals, revolting and obscene monsters. I am very pleased.

    • James Ensor, The Skeleton Painter

      James Ensor, The Skeleton Painter, 1896.

      Oil on panel. 37.3 x 45.3 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, inv. 3112 Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016.

      On his work...

      Hounded by those on my trail, I joyfully took refuge in the solitary land of fools where the mask, with its violence, its brightness and brilliance, reigns supreme.

      Throughout the early 1880s, Ensor’s paintings moved away from his early naturalism and became increasingly eccentric. Here, he describes how he learned to embrace his own artistic vision and shake off the harsh reviews from his critics.

      I’ve added a few hundred more figures: ghastly devils, horrible animals, revolting and obscene monsters. I am very pleased.

      The work in question here is The Temptation of St Anthony (1887), a vast artwork consisting of 51 separate sheets of paper, mounted onto canvas. You can see the drawing here.

  • On Belgians and Brits...

    A hostile public, creeping down the sandy beach, Ostenders detest art. Last year thirty Ostenders came to see the exhibition; this year we’ll reach the number of thirty-one.

    Writing to his friend Pol de Mont in 1895, Ensor vented his frustration at the lack of artistic appreciation among his fellow Ostenders. Ensor had mixed feelings about his hometown; his English father, an alcoholic, was attacked by local thugs in 1885 while on his way home, prompting a serious breakdown in his mental health. Reporting the attack in a letter to Mariette, Ensor wrote that the attackers’ families had just passed the house laughing, bitterly commenting “that’s the Ostend public for you”. However, Ensor never left his birthplace, choosing to stay put even through two world wars.

    I feel more English than most of the English artists now slavishly imitating the early Italians.

    Writing to a critic in his later years, Ensor compared himself to British artists and satirists including Turner, Hogarth and Gainsborough, while disparaging the in-vogue Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Like Hogarth, Ensor’s work makes extensive use of caricature, most notably in Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, which placed several recognisable Belgian notables amongst the crowds of people.

    …our desires are born of the flatlands, our paradises are made of dough and condensed milk, and our endearments are made of butter.

    By 1924, Ensor occupied a considerably more elevated position within Belgian society. Although he still enjoyed writing lengthy diatribes, his work was no longer critically derided; in fact, he was just five years away from being ennobled by King Albert. These improvements in his status might account for the more generous words he uses to describe the Belgian temperament, thirty years after dismissing the Ostenders.

  • What a wonderful, phosphorescent dream: to end in beauty, tenderly embraced by a passionate octopus!

  • On dreams...

    I was born on Friday, April 13, 1860, the day of Venus. At my birth Venus came toward me, smiling, and we looked into each other’s eyes. She smelled pleasantly of sea water.

    An imaginative retelling of Ensor’s birth, as told in My writings.

    What a wonderful, phosphorescent dream: to end in beauty, tenderly embraced by a passionate octopus!

    Ensor’s writings frequently make reference to the sea; unsurprisingly, given that he lived in a coastal town all his life. Here, he envisions dying in the depths of the North Sea, evoking some unusual imagery in the process.

    Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans is in The Sackler Wing of Galleries at the RA until 29 January 2017.

  • Citations

    1. Ensor’s Panache by Debora Silverman, James Ensor: The Temptation of St Anthony, citation 74. Ensor, Mes écrits, ou, les sufficances matamoresques, ed. Hugo Martin (Labor, 1999), pp. 106, 108; quoted in Todts, “‘Make Way for the Old Ones! Respect Defunct Schools!’: Ensor and the Art-Historical Canon,” in James Ensor, ed. Anna Swinbourne, exh. cat. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2009), p. 126.

    2. Quoted in Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans Exhibition in Focus by Tom Jeffreys, p1

    3. James Ensor: Lettres, ed. Xavier Tricot (Labor, 1999).

    4. La mer medicinale, 1931, in My Writings, or Self-Important Swaggerings

    5. Martin (Labor, 1999)

    6. Quoted in James Ensor by Paul Haesaerts, p227.

    7. Discours prononcé au banquet offert à Ensor par La Flandre Littéraire,1920, Mes écrits

    8. Ensor to Pol de Mont, Dec. 5, 1894, Kunstmuseum an Zee, published in James Ensor: Lettres, ed. Xavier Tricot (Labor, 1999), pp. 128–29. Quoted in the preface by Herwig Todts to James Ensor: The Temptation of St Anthony, p15

    9. Letter 62, Ensor to Mariette and Ernest Rousseau senior, undated. Quoted in The Trials of the Temptation by Patrick Florizoone and Nancy Ireson, James Ensor: The Temptation of St Anthony

    10. Lumiere, une et indivisable (1934), Mes écrits, ou, les sufficances matamoresques, ed. Hugo Martin (Labor, 1999)

    11. Ensor, in “Discours au Kursaal d‘Ostende”, in Mes écrits p.143, translated in Theatre of Masks, p12. Quoted in James Ensor: Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 by Patricia G Berman, p9.

    12. Letter 417B, Ensor to Mariette Rousseau, [1887]. The Trials of the Temptation by Patrick Florizoone and Nancy Ireson, James Ensor: The Temptation of St Anthony, citation 46.

    13. Quoted in James Ensor, 1860-1949: Masks, Death and the Sea by Ulrike Becks-Malorny, p14

    14. Ensor, letter to Pol de Mont, dates Ostend, 1900. In the collection of the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ostend, translated in Theatre of Masks. Quoted in James Ensor: Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 by Patricia G Berman, p17.

    15. Discours prononcé à l‘occasion de la Commemoration Bruegel à Bruxelles, 1924, Mes écrits

    16. Quoted in James Ensor by Paul Haesaerts, p30.

    17. Discours aux masques loyaux et autres, 1929, in Mes écrits, ou, les sufficances matamoresques, ed. Hugo Martin (Labor, 1999)

    All quotes by James Ensor © SABAM Belgium 2016

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