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James Ensor: Opinionated, Acerbic and satirical, Phantasmatic and phantasmagoric

James Ensor by Rick Wouters - Courtesy of Wiki Commons

"Finally, hemmed in by followers, I have happily confined myself to a solitary milieu where the mask is enthroned full of violence, light and splendor. For me the mask means Freshness of tone, overly shrilled expression, sumptuous scene, great unexpected gestures, reckless movements, exquisite turbulence."₁

James Ensor

Born on April 13, 1860, in the seaside town of Ostend, Belgium (yep, people of the page, Belgium … the extremely great and fabulous country where I, too, was born … 😉) James Ensor is one of these lesser-known expressionist and surrealist painters with a particular fascination of the popular carnival culture organized each year around the Mardi Gras celebrations throughout Belgium. It helped that his parent’s shop in Ostend was a supplier of carnival accouterments. To understand Ensor, one must understand that Ostend, in those faraway days, was a small tourist town where, as is often the case, outsiders were not particularly welcomed. The small town had a suffocating atmosphere, where gossip, something at the top of people’s agenda, was doing its rounds over a cup of hot steaming coffee with a piece of homemade pie, often related to bad humor, sullenness, and repressed maliciousness or ill will. This was the society where Ensor’s family felt at home.

The imagery produced is consistently cynical and mocking. It often represents an almost grotesque form of realism which in turn means to chronicle the stresses of the social morays of that particular time. It turns out that his chronicle is still true to this day.

The Lady in Blue - James Ensor - Licence: Wiki Commons

Though his first works were demure portraits and landscapes, by 1880 he switched to a more impressionistic style, choosing his colors with more “delicate” fervor as in “The Lady in Blue”(1888) but it

is his use of masks that sets his work apart. That interest, no doubt, started in his mother’s shop. And yet, in 1883 his works were rejected by the Salon in Brussels. He then joined a group of progressive artists called “Les Vingt” (The Twenty).

During this period, in such works as his Scandalized Masks (1883), he begins to depict images of grotesque fantasy—skeletons, phantoms, and hideous masks. Scandalous is the right word because when he paints “The Entry of Christ Into Brussels,” the imagery filled with carnival masks painted in garish (really vulgar) colors provokes such indignation to the group even as progressive as “Les Vingt.”

Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man (1891)

It did not impede him to continue to paint nightmarish visions as Masks (Intrigues) (1890) and Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man (1891), but the more abusive the criticism of his work became, the more cynical and misanthropic he became. A state of mind given life in his frightening expression of his “Portrait of the Artist Surrounded by Masks (1899). As time went by, he became such a recluse that he was often thought to have died.

In 1929, Entry of Christ Into Brussels was exhibited publicly for the first time, and King Albert of Belgium conferred him a barony.

Much more can be said about this eclectic painter, and I can but encourage you to read more about him and his life. Carnival is a fascinating period in “bourgeois” life …

Skeleton in Cement - Luc Thuymans

Check it out for yourself.

Until next time. Have a lovely week! Namaste!!



Tuymans curates Ensor





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