Skull and Bones: The Haunted Art of James Ensor

5 minute read
Richard Lacayo

The Belgian painter James Ensor is the outsider artist who made it in. An isolated and splenetic man, contemptuous of both authority and the human herd, always feuding with the world and licking his wounds, he ended up all the same with money, royal honors and a secure if peculiar foothold in art history. There’s a major Ensor show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this summer. It focuses just on work from the two decades after 1880, when he was in his 20s and 30s, but, no surprise, those were the years we love him for, when Ensor got deeply in touch with his inner oddball.

The son of a transplanted Englishman, Ensor spent almost his entire life in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend, working in an attic studio above his family’s souvenir and novelty shop, a place crammed with seashells, stuffed fish, old books and the Flemish carnival masks that crowd so many of his canvases. His only long absence from the city began in 1877, when he headed to Brussels and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, trying and failing to become the academic painter he was never suited to be. Three years later, he was back in Ostend, making highly capable portraits, still lifes and domestic interiors and looking very likely to end up a lifelong observer of the bourgeois home front, a Belgian equivalent of Vuillard or Bonnard.

But in the mid-1880s, some bomb went off in his brain. Ensor started experimenting with pencil drawing, teasing out a jittery, evaporating line that could dissolve form into boiling clouds of light. He applied it for a while to religious subjects weirdly poised between the sacred and the profane. Christ before an uncomprehending contemporary crowd was a favorite. That’s also the subject of his most famous painting, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. A cartoonish cacophony of marching bands and lurid faces, it’s a mob scene straight out of South Park. (Unfortunately it’s not included in the MOMA show, which was organized by assistant curator Anna Swinbourne, because the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which owns the picture, doesn’t let it travel.)

Early in the 1880s, when his paintings were being excluded from the official salons, Ensor co-founded an alliance of Belgian avant-gardists. Les Vingt — the Twenty — held an annual salon of its own that solicited work from foreign artists including Monet, Renoir and Whistler. In 1887, Georges Seurat contributed nothing less than A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, a tour de force of early modern art. Properly dazzled, a good number of the Twenty became converts to Seurat’s pointillism. This was too much for Ensor. He had already dismissed the Impressionists. Who cared about capturing fugitive sunlight when you could be trying to pin down hellfire? Seurat’s shimmering neo-Impressionism looked no better to him. What Ensor wanted was an art that could reach into his interior life, which must have been quite a place, or serve his feverish critique of his times.

And what would that kind of art look like? In that same year, he provided one answer in Tribulations of Saint Anthony, a pandemonium crammed with the kind of scribble-scrawl images the world would not see again until Cy Twombly came along more than six decades later. Around this time, Ensor also started bringing his masks and skeletons out to play on a regular basis. From then on, personal and social relations in his work would be a dark comedy, performed in disguise and in party colors, with the Grim Reaper making regular entrances to rattle his bones in your face. It’s a spook show too tawdry to be frightening, one that takes place in threadbare rooms and in rag-barrel costumes, but that’s the point. In Ensor the dramas of existence are mostly shabby ones. In Masks Mocking Death, even death is just another lowlife, a target of scorn — though he looks as if he knows he’s going to get the last laugh.

Ensor drew lessons in form and color from Turner, Courbet and Manet, but the spirit of his work, the mad afflatus of his gift, owes more to the Germans. His devils are inherited from Bosch and Brueghel. His taste for the grotesque traces back to Grünewald. He, in turn, would hand on his caustic vision of humanity to the German Expressionists, younger artists like Emil Nolde and Ernst Kirchner who saw the possibilities in his combination of sour disposition and strident palette.

Chronically aggrieved, Ensor was the sort of man who didn’t hesitate to draw himself as Christ crucified or, better, as a pickled herring being pulled apart by two art critics represented as skulls. Perhaps because he never expected his work to be accepted, he could pursue it to its furthest conclusions. But then — surprise — the honors started coming his way anyway. Museums began acquiring his art and offering him big shows. In 1929, Belgium’s King Albert I even named him a baron, which makes you wonder if Albert had ever seen Ensor’s etching of a king defecating on the heads of the people. By the time Ensor died, in 1949, he was a national treasure — which can only mean the Belgians must be awfully good sports. And that they knew an odd genius when they saw one. Even if it’s true that after 1900 he was increasingly a spent force, for two feverish decades, Ensor was a force to be reckoned with.

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