Heather Taylor shares her thoughts on James Ensor’s lifeworks, curated by Luc Tuymans at the Royal Academy.
Artist curated exhibitions are always interesting – the viewer has to bear in mind a hefty dose of subjectivity and skew will likely be in order. The RA’s latest show, Intrigue, is curated by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans (and includes a couple of instances of his own work) with the aim of asserting his fellow countryman, James Ensor, as a key figure in turn-of-the-century European art. Tuymans work is very grey. Ensor’s (thankfully) is not.
Ensor was born in 1860 in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend. His father was English, his mother Flemish. The town was a fashionable resort for the upper and middle classes, and was also home to the rather whimsically named ‘Dead Rat Ball’, a huge annual carnival. This atmosphere fascinated Ensor, and he developed a preoccupation with masks and theatricality. His family were reliant on the carnival and the tourists it attracted for their income, running a seaside-tat shop stocking a kooky range of novelties.
During his early years of art study, he painted at home before travelling to Brussels to further his education. This foray into the metropolis was unsuccessful and contributed to his sense of being outsider. Nevertheless, friendships were made and philosophies established that would guide his artistic endeavour for the duration of his life. Due to feeling ostracised by tradition, he established a circle of artists named “Les Vingt” – Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne and Seurat added ballast to an exhibition of fresh Belgian artists. However, Ensor never fully integrated with the group and consistently struck out alone in pursuing his own original thinking.
We are told that Ensor has a “life-long preoccupation with death”. This is something we’re supposed to be disturbed by: I think it’s quite normal, seeing as life is essentially a gradual working towards dying. Death is indeed referenced in many of his paintings, however, many of them are either wryly comic or provide a interesting new life-perspective. For example, Death looking at Chinoiseries (1885) seems to portray the skeleton as rather bemused by the living’s preoccupation with banal materialities. The rendering of a pair of skulls fighting over a pickled herring is absurdly comic; the jaw of one protrudes grotesquely, whilst the teeth of both are clamped in determination. Once we know the pickled herring is representative of Ensor himself and the skeletons are art critics, the painting almost invites laughter at ourselves. If we’re trying to critique this piece, we’ve become an empty skull and the painting is reduced to nothing more than a pickled herring.
Interestingly, when Ensor chooses to depict himself as a skeleton, he does so in much brighter and fresher hues than when he paints a more conventional, brownish and blurry flesh version of himself. As a skeleton, he sports a sky-blue suit and is surrounded by his paintings, hard at work in his studio. This suggests a kind of liberating reemergence from the body after death. We could even go as far as to suggest this self-portrait is a vision of heaven – the luminosity and exuberance of colour and object suggesting a paradisal vision.
In contrast, quotidian life can be portrayed rather darkly. Interior scenes of dreary Ostend afternoons suggest something subdued, even cloistered. The women (perhaps his mother and aunt) are seated before a dead fire; one looks imploringly at the viewer, as if she desires to escape, yet is somehow static in her attempt to rise from the chair. The older woman next to her is pale and sunken and stares resignedly at her tea cup. It’s rather oppressive. And puts you off tea.
Ensor could draw, and did so with relish. Some examples are near-caricatures in both their style and the lacerating nature of their social satire. The Bad Doctors (1892) illustrates the disembowelling of an absurdly bloated man by three rouge medics. He appears strangled by his own intestines, whilst Death lurks in the doorway, observing the chaotic scene with placid glee.
Religion is important for Ensor, and he takes on scenes of great biblical magnitude. His Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise (1887) is evocative; the eye initially does not detect the figures of the ousted pair due to their forms being so integrated with the texture of the landscape – the brown of the land and the flesh of the bodies melding together reminds us of our origins in dust. The Angel spreads itself luxuriantly across the sky in hues of yellow and pink, sending down a streak of fleshy lightning towards the equally fleshy and rebellious humans. The strip of deep green in the background is almost solid; the verdure of Eden has become a wall, solid yet still alluring.
The Intrigue (1890) is a truly horrifying painting and illustrates Ensor’s obsession with the mask. The figures are utterly unreal, yet seem to be examples of bourgeois Belgian society. The masks they are made to wear seem to suggest the simultaneous process of identity creation along with disguise which is undertaken by the whole of society. Even the baby is a lifeless doll. The group are performing, playing their assigned roles in the masquerade of existence. One cannot imagine any of them articulating words; instead a cacophony of incoherent gurgling and shrieks is conveyed by their open mouths and dead eyes.
Ensor is not straight-forwardly macabre. His depiction of death does not portray depression or anxiety, but more a curiosity regarding something which is both inevitable and commonplace, yet simultaneously mysterious and unknowable. He attempts to attach himself to this otherwise distant concept, suggesting he sees it not as an ending, but as a continuation of sorts. In fact, he sometimes sees the living as more empty and disturbing than the dead, as his acidic satire of middle class Belgium goes to prove. Rather, death is a process which frees and liberates from the masquerade of life, and is the true test of a man’s (and particularly and artist’s) ultimate value. If a man can continue to live and speak to us in skeleton form, dressed in a cheery blue suit, surrounded by his prize paintings, he has not died – he simply inhabits a different plane of being.
Featured image: Royal Academy.