James Ensor: “theatrical” artist

To Chicken’s surprise I’d never heard of James Ensor (1860-1949), but I was much taken by the exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy. Chicken, in contrast, wasn’t impressed.

The exhibition is curated by Luc Tuymans, a fellow Belgian and one of the best known contemporary artists. Tuymans was strongly influenced by Ensor when young, although we had this more on his say so than un evidence in the exhibition.

Ensor was an eccentric who largely eschewed the art establishment and lived in Ostend, which was fashionable (at least in the summer) when he began but faded as he faded. Tuymans and others judge that his best work was all done before he was 40, although I liked some of what he did later.

Tuymans describes him as a theatrical artist, and that’s certainly true of one his most famous works Intrigue. It was the first painting of Ensor’s that Tuymans ever saw. It shows the faces of a collection of carnival goers, all wearing masks. Or do they all have masks? And perhaps some of what we see as faces are just masks. Ensor was obsessed by masks.


He was also obsessed with death, and the exhibition included a self-portrait as skeleton. The face, I thought, is a mask in front of the skeleton, and I often imagine the skeleton under my face.


When young he sketched himself as a 60 year old–effectively as a skeleton with a little hair–and perhaps some remnants of flesh. I remember as a teenager painting myself as an old man. Now I’m even older than I painted myself, and I’m sorry that I’ve lost the painting. Perhaps as an old man I should paint myself as a young man. I hover on the edge of taking up painting again.


But he could, I thought, paint well, and I like a jolly self-portrait wearing a flowered hat.


Ensor also depicted himself in his pictures attacking the bourgeoisie. In his picture of bad cooks serving up human heads his is one of the heads on a plate.


In another picture he shows two art critics as skeletons fighting over a herring. He must have painted this, I blithely wrote, around the time that Jean-Paul Sartre talked about “two bald men fighting over a comb.” I Google to find when Sartre said that and whom he said it about, and I discover that it was actually Jorge Luis Borges who used the phrase in 1983–a reference to the Falklands War.


The exhibition included two pictures of bad doctors, and they show doctors fighting and deceiving each other while the patient is neglected and death looks on confident of a new victim. I wondered how many other artists painted “bad doctors.” Literature is full of bad doctors, but I can’t immediately think of others in paintings.


One of the things both Chicken and I enjoyed was an old film of Ensor with a friend and two women walking through Ostend and sitting on the beach taking and drinking wine. It captured wonderfully fin de siècle Ostend. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuqTvs-XZwQ In fact, I discovered when reading notes about the exhibition, the film was made a few years ago by Guillaume Bijl and uses actors. More deception.




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