Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans @ the Royal Academy

Ensor (1860-1949) is an oddity. He was born in Ostend, a windswept seaside ‘resort’ on the coast of Belgium in 1860 and chose to spend his whole life there. His parents kept a modest curiosity shop which made its money during the short summer tourist season, and the guide tells us that, once a year, Ostend had a colourful Mardi Gras carnival, where everyone wore masks. It is easy enough to make the connection between Ensor growing up among bizarre artefacts, experiencing this annual jamboree, and what was to become his trademark depiction of grotesquely distorted people wearing carnival masks…

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The guide goes on to explain that Ostend had been the site of a lengthy siege and battle way back in the 17th century, and that all building works in the area tended to dig up piles of bones and skulls. Apparently there are photos of Ensor and friends holding mock duels on the beach using human bones (though not included in the show). All of which explains his other favourite subject of skulls and skeletons.

The exhibition could have stuck to an exploration of these themes but it is curated not by scholars but by fellow Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans (b.1958) who has always been attracted to his countryman’s work and sets out to show us that there is more to Ensor than just his best-known grotesque paintings. The show deliberately sets out to show us Ensor’s range and diversity, and so we are introduced to other major strands in his output, such as:

Early realist works

These include Bathing Hut (1876), painted when he was just 16 and showing a typical sight on the windswept beach, and Afternoon In Ostende (1881) showing his mother and sister in a grim muddy interior, indicative of the stiflingly conventional bourgeois the artist grew up in. This early naturalist style could hardly be more at odds with the style that made him famous. A good example here is the Self-portrait with a flowered hat (1883). OK he’s a bit of a dandy, but a very conventional one.

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende Photo MuZee © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende
Photo MuZee © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Satirical cartoons

One of the three rooms in the show features a long case showing maybe forty examples of the satirical cartoons he produced by the score, as stand-alones or in sets, satirising Ostend bourgeois society. No wonder he became so unpopular in the town of his birth.

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Two large examples are hung separately:

  • The Bad Doctors (1892)
  • The Dangerous Cooks (1896) Ensor’s withering opinion of critics who are serving up his and a fellow artist’s heads on plates to be scoffed by porcine critics waiting at the table.

Ensor carried out a lifelong war against critics who didn’t like or value his work. This was the era when variations on Impressionism were still being produced and new movements from France, like Symbolism, were smooth and high-toned. Ensor was deliberately crude, clumsy, garish and, above all, satirical. It’s not a particularly good work, but the approach of the man seems to be summed up in The Pisser.

Religious art

Disappointingly for a man who considered himself a rebel and non-conformist, there’s a strong Christian thread through his work, represented here by a huge horrible painting of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden. It is enormous and dominates one whole wall.

Apparently, his most famous work is Christ’s entry into Brussels, which is not on show here, combining his interests in the grotesque, social satire and religion into a ragbag which I’m afraid I don’t like at all.

The fantastic

Ensor produced hundreds of engravings, etchings and lithographs of very variable quality, many of them depicting scenes of fantasy and the grotesque. There is a series devoted to the seven deadly sins, which anticipate the deliberate ugliness of post-Great War satirists like George Grosz.

Both my children are at secondary school. In order to choose which secondary schools to send them to we went to open days of maybe a dozen schools in all. In every one, among other areas, you tour round the art rooms. Deliberately cack-handed, garish and obvious depictions of the seamy side of life – of ugly people, skeletons, skulls, alongside satire on religion or political leaders – depicted with the earnestness of 5th and 6th form teenagers is what these rooms are packed with. After looking at the 20th etching of a deadly sin or crowds mocking Christ or the troops at Waterloo it’s hard not to think of Ensor as a kind of patron saint of tens of thousands of clumsy, over-earnest adolescent imaginations.

Drawings

The show includes a lot of prints and drawings. What struck me is how powerfully naturalistic some of the early ones are before he discovered his talent for the macabre and grotesque. I much preferred these which have a depth and maturity which, paradoxically, his later deliberately sketchy satires wholly lack.

Still life 

In the room of grotesques one painting stood apart – a dazzling still life. This photographic reproduction completely fails to bring out the unnervingly oiliness and spookiness of the painting in the flesh. It is a far more intense and disturbing image than some of the overtly grotesque paintings. More subtly unnerving.

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns - Ro scan © DACS 2016

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels/photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan © DACS 2016

Over by 40

Although Ensor lived to an advanced age, not dying until 1949, the excellent handout for the exhibition crisply points out that by the age of 40 (1900) his best work was done. He spent the next 40 years repeating the same motifs and, in his last years, developing a much lighter more gaseous style. The expert on the audio-commentary tries to claim these later works match the earlier ones, but they don’t.

Luc Tuymans

Because this is not a ‘scholarly’ exhibition but a personal selection of one artist’s works by another (Luc Tuymans) Tuymans mixes it up a little, adding other elements. Most notable are a couple of works by Tuymans himself, chiefly an enormous white carnival hat with billowing feathers, as worn at the Carnival de Binche in 2001, as well as five – to be honest, rather bland – carnival masks.

A bit more relevant is the self-portrait by Ensor’s Ostend contemporary, Léon Spilliart. Apparently it was seeing Ensor’s work that persuaded Spilliart to pack in being a lawyer and become a painter instead. Interesting story and I very much liked the intensity of this image, with the subject’s eyes in deep black shadow, and his reflection repeated in parallel mirrors to infinity. In fact googling this image shows that Spilliart did multiple self-portraits and comes over as an intense spin-off of the Edvard Munch school of northern depression.

But this one image, by itself, doesn’t really tell me much about Ensor or shed much light on the contemporary Belgian ‘scene’.

Conclusion

I knew next to nothing about Ensor before visiting, and so this exhibition is a useful overview of his life and achievement but, having got a grasp of his career, I would have liked to see more of his trademark weird mask and skull paintings, and/or more of the striking naturalistic paintings he did right at the start of his career.

There are only three rooms in this small exhibition and the majority of the space is devoted to drawings, prints and cartoons most of which just aren’t of the same quality as the grotesques/realist works. Imagine if the space had been full to overflowing with his paintings of garish masks and leering skeletons and green-faced women and men with pig noses – what a powerful experience it would have been!

While searching Ensor images on the internet I came across The Dejected Woman, was very impressed by it, and couldn’t help wondering whether a lot of the satirical drawings, sketches and cartoons which Ensor devoted so much effort to (e.g. Christ tormented by demons) and which are given so much wall space here, were, in fact, a waste of a breath-taking talent.


Related links

Other Royal Academy reviews

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: