Dreams, demons and seismic doodling: Timothy Hyman RA on James Ensor

Published 16 December 2016

In this extract from his new book, Timothy Hyman explores how the visionary Belgian painter remade figurative painting in his own macabre manner.

  • From the Winter 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Some of the 20th century’s most vivid imagery has been the work of visionaries or outsiders – exceptionals – who cannot easily be inserted into any account of painting’s “progress”, yet who together stake out new territory for artists. Each embodies a challenge to exclusionary orthodoxies, whether academic or formalist; each affirms a role for the solitary image-maker, creating ambitious projects and narratives independent of the art-world mainstream.

    Modernism, defined by Mexican writer Octavio Paz as “the revolt of the suppressed realities”, often took a psychological turn. The honouring of Dream and The Unconscious – a recognition that we may be most fully ourselves when not in our waking mind – transformed 20th-century painting. “Of the dream,” wrote Jung in 1911, “it may truly be said, the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” The impact of Surrealism, assisted by the growth of art publishing and colour reproduction, helped lift out of obscurity several forgotten “fantastic” artists, singularities such as Hercules Seghers or Richard Dadd.

    In that spirit, the American painter Leon Golub often insisted that “true Modernism began not in Paris, but in Ostend in the 1880s” – the decade in which James Ensor (1860–1949), completed all of his most significant works. Tribulations of Saint Anthony (1887) hangs majestically at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where each new generation of painters, from De Kooning and Guston to Paula Rego and Dana Schutz, has drawn inspiration from Ensor’s reconciliation of modernist painting with a complex, literary imagery.

  • James Ensor, Tribulations of St Anthony

    James Ensor, Tribulations of St Anthony, 1887.

    Purchase. Acc. n.: 1642.1940.© 2016/Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

  • Many artists before Ensor had depicted the legend of Saint Anthony – the earliest Desert Father, who separates himself from mankind and seeks solitude, only to be tormented by the world he carries with him. As in Hieronymus Bosch’s great Lisbon triptych of 1515, Anthony is depicted by Ensor hunched over his holy book, peering uneasily behind him as the void fills with self-generated monsters. Ensor, working alone through long, silent days in his fifth-floor attic high above the family’s carnival shop, conjures a more visceral language for his own tribulations; a disquieting imagery neither nocturnal nor fiery, but high-keyed, focused around the central swamp or waterfall of white. He transfers the beautiful nacreous palette of his seascapes and still-lifes to his inner wilderness – broken pinks beside rose reds, though always set against that ridged and seamed, impastoed whiteness. Lead-white becomes a substance independent of any descriptive function, into which Ensor zigzags the end of his brush, as a kind of seismic doodling; and out of this matrix there emerge wonderful miasmas of hallucinatory imagery. The longer we look, the more we discover: insects and polyps morphing into demons; the animal-headed creature bearing a lyre, merging with the red-haired woman at the café table; a hot-air balloon with a face, and in its basket, a flayed figure. Enemas, projectile vomit, a ship-of-fools, bottoms that become faces, witches on broomsticks – the familiar imagery of the Flemish Carnival is here recast to suggest the unbounded and anarchic freedom of the individual imagination.

    It was also in 1887 that an enormous canvas by the 25-year-old Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86), took the Belgian art world by storm, converting many to Divisionist procedures. Ensor railed against this “art of cold calculation… dry and repellent”. He especially resented the claim of Divisionism to be the true painting idiom, equivalent to the libertarian/anarchist tenets Ensor himself espoused. The following year he embarked upon his own, over 14-foot refutation, The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, a disorderly carnival realised with an utterly unpredictable wildness of mark.

    Ensor’s paintings and etchings of the 1880s became widely known only in the 20th century. In 1906 the young Paul Klee (1879–1940) became fascinated by the autonomy of Ensor’s line, sending him two etchings of his own: and in 1911, Emil Nolde visited Ensor in Ostend. By mid-century his art had become an essential component within the modernist canon, while remaining outside any “movement”.

    Almost a century after Ensor’s Tribulations, Ken Kiff (1935–2001) in London made his own assertion of the inward imagination. In Talking with a Psychoanalyst: Night Sky (1973–79), the mild-faced patient is Kiff himself. As he and the shadowy analyst become polarised, the room fills behind him with grotesque presences, pouring in through the half-open door – huge-nosed, multi-testicled, bestial or bowler-hatted. On the floor, perhaps suggesting the potential violence of this transaction, are a saw, a hammer and a pitchfork.

  • Ken Kiff RA, Talking with a Psychoanalyst: Night Sky

    Ken Kiff RA, Talking with a Psychoanalyst: Night Sky, 1973–79.

    © Estate of Ken Kiff.

  • When, in his mid-20s, Kiff had first begun to paint fantasy pictures, he’d experienced a sense of helplessness: the images that appeared were often extremely frightening. He had needed help. He began seeing a psychotherapist, whose orientation was broadly Jungian. (It wasn’t merely an intellectual adventure; as Kiff later insisted, “I wasn’t right in the head”.) Those sessions put him on easier terms with his imagination and taught him to avoid closure on any one interpretation. He wrote of receiving “moral support” from his analyst; but also, especially relevant to this image, that the analyst “provided a polarity”. And in thinking about the prevalence of the self in art over the past century, he saw it as an assertion of the individual – against negativity, against the collective and the corporate, but also, more generally, against the not-self. “It’s like a discovery… It’s an unknown… It isn’t self-aggrandisement… An image of oneself in the painting never merely represents one’s self.” For Kiff, each painting was the outcome of a complex exchange, between an underlying “abstract” stratum of colour and potentiality, and the “figurative” image that eventually emerged from it. “The hill was yellow now. But if it stayed yellow, it might not stay a hill; and if it stayed a hill, it might not stay yellow.”

    That process of image-forming is evident in all the “modernist symbolists”: Ensor, Kubin, Tagore, Yeats, Kiff – each in their different way participates in that shift of language which separates their figuration from any copying of reality. As Kiff wrote in 1979:

    The symbol-construction that a dream is, presses towards the future… So with the symbol-construction that a painting is: using the present and the past, it presses towards the future.

    The world has to be remade, its forms – figures, objects, spaces – dragged out of an inward Void, constructed anew in an unpredictable exploration.

    The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the 20th Century is published by Thames and Hudson.

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

  • Audio: Timothy Hyman discusses his new book

    20th century figurative painting

    Painter and writer Timothy Hyman and curator Roger Malbert highlight a range of Modernists who, despite their awareness of abstraction, chose to work in narrative and confessional modes, including James Ensor.


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