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James Ensor

Museum of Modern Art, June 28 – September 21, 2009

From time to time a special exhibit comes along that sheds light on an incredible artist whose work is long past due for fresh contemplation. Such a show is this, the first major retrospective in three decades of James Ensor (1860-1949), a singular if hard-to-define figure of the early European avant-garde. This selection of more than 125 paintings, drawings and prints presents an artist who quite consciously brought scholastic classical painting of the late 19th century through the paces of impressionism, fauvism, post-impressionism, symbolism and finally expressionism, sometimes with surrealist tendencies, and in the process influenced generations of artists, during his lifetime and after.

Room after room shows Ensor tackling every genre, every style, and every technique; in his own words, it was “like changing shirts.” His scale also fluctuated widely, from very large paintings and drawings to tiny prints and etchings.

James Ensor Belgian, “Self-Portrait with Masks,” 1899. Oil on canvas (120cmx80cm).
James Ensor Belgian, “Self-Portrait with Masks,” 1899. Oil on canvas (120cmx80cm).

After his studies at the Brussels Academy in his native Belgium, Ensor started out painting traditional subjects: landscapes, still lifes, portraits and interiors in deep, rich colors enlivened by subdued but vibrant light. Indeed, from the beginning, his innovative technique produced what the show’s curators call an “allegorical use of light.”

During the 1880s, his style changed to a mixture of symbolism and expressionism. He took his subject matter principally from holiday crowds, the tradition of Carnival and his family business—selling satirical and grotesque facemasks. Portraying individuals as clowns or skeletons, or replacing their faces with carnival masks, he represented humanity as stupid, smirking, vain and loathsome.

By the late 1880s, Ensor was drawing bizarre hybrids: insect-like creatures with human faces (“Peculiar Insects,” drypoint on Japan paper, an accidental precursor to Kafka’s protagonist in “Metamorphosis”) and a triple-head monster—bird on the left, wolf at mid-right, and frighteningly, devilishly human in the middle—in the painting “Tribulations of Saint Anthony” 1887. The rest of the canvas is filled with more unearthly characters along with abstract fields of pigment seemingly squeezed directly from the paint tube, a technique often used by Abstract Expressionists.

At age 28, he painted his most famous work, “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels,” a controversial piece that took on religion, politics and art while pointedly poking fun at “The Entry of Christ in Jerusalem” by 14th-century artist Pietro Lorenzetti. In this large painting, Ensor employed a system of perspective unmarked by points or lines, but registered by a layered arrangement that reduces the size of characters as they approach the horizon. Here, Christ is shown entering contemporary Brussels at the head of a Mardi Gras parade. In reaction to the concurrent French pointillist style, the artist used palette knives, spatulas and both ends of the brush to put down patches of color with unrestrained expressive freedom. (He also made several preparatory drawings for the painting that are shown here for the first time.)

Belgian society is depicted as a crude mob of grimacing, stupefied heads reveling in a demonic festival, a collective of threatening masks. The haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait: mostly ignored, he is a precarious, isolated visionary amid the herd-like masses of modern society.

After being rejected by “Les Vingt,” the avant-garde artists’ association that Ensor had helped to found, the painting was not exhibited again publicly until 1929. But Ensor displayed “Christ’s Entry” prominently in his home and studio throughout his life. With its aggressive, painterly style that merges the public with the deeply personal, this work is a certain forerunner of expressionism.

By 1900, fine art was at a crossroads, just as Ensor was exploring the claustrophobic potential of interiors, specifically that of his own attic studio at his mother’s house, a domain of ghosts and dreams. “Skeleton in the Studio” (1900, oil on canvas) shows a grotesque collection of masks and skulls (some eating herrings) juxtaposed with a few domestic relics of the Christian faith. 

Such work was extremely innovative for the time, but of course, Ensor did not live or create in a vacuum. He was praised by Emil Nolde and Paul Klee; his works were exhibited alongside those of Paul Cezanne, Paul Signac, Vincent Van Gogh; he was visited by Wassily Kandinsky.

A large drawing, ”The Bath at Ostend” (1890, black crayon on paper), presages the cartoonish-expressionistic style of the American/Romanian surrealist Saul Steinberg, who created many New Yorker magazine covers in the 1970s and ‘80s. In this particular piece, Ensor has some fun with the Belgian aristocracy and bourgeoisie that crowded the resort of Ostend, the summer residence of the royal Belgian family since 1835.  

“Demons Tormenting Me” (1888, graphite and black chalk on paper) is my favorite drawing in the show. In this frontal self-portrait, the artist is surrounded by distorted, ghost-like faces and hideous monsters grabbing, poking and scratching him with their long claws.

Ensor’s color, violence, savagery and fantasy are familiar attributes of later art movements, particularly German expressionism and Belgian surrealism. In Surrealism and Painting (1965), Andre Breton cites Ensor, Felix Vallotton and German painter Emil Nolde as important forerunners of expressionism proper.

Although such a large show often resists logical organization, Ensor’s progression can be traced linearly thanks to an intrepid trio: Anna Swinbourne (assistant curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art), Susan M. Canning (professor of art history, College of New Rochelle) and Jane Panetta (Curatorial Assistant at MoMA). In conjunction with the retrospective, there is a 200-page color catalogue with essays by the curators and several art historians, affirming the visionary talents of this major avant-garde genius.

You can find more images from his exhibit at


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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