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.