James Ensor (1860-1949) is a difficult artist to classify. Considered a preeminent figure in the Belgian avant garde, he had a profound influence on the 20th Century schools of Expressionism and Surrealism. And while every Flemish school child is familiar with his work, it is certainly not well known here in the United States. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, aims to change that with a major new exhibition that will open American eyes to the weird and wonderful world of this captivating artist!
James Ensor was born in the coastal town of Ostend, Belgium, where his parents owned a curiosity shop that stocked shells, china, tourist trinkets and most importantly for James, masks for the annual carnival. His travels were limited to London, Paris, Holland and Brussels, and he lived in Ostend all of his life, either on a floor above his parents' shop or later in his Uncle's nearby house. Ensor was obsessed with light, the sea, death, performance and carnival which he interpreted on paper and canvas with his own peculiar sense of humor.
The exhibition's curator, Anna Swinbourne, admits she had a hard time coming up with a unifying theme, but her 2 1/2 year effort has produced a masterful show. 120 drawings, prints and paintings from his most creative period (1880-1895) are presented in more or less chronological order and give the visitor a deep appreciation for his satiric wit and macabre visions.
The first galleries are fairly traditional with landscapes and interiors done in sombre colors applied with sketchy, flat brush strokes. But before long his palette came alive and by 1885 he was painting more imaginary and spiritual subjects and developing the curious style for which he became famous. Now the skeletons and masked figures were everywhere, "Skeletons Looking at Chinoiseries", 1885/8, "Masks Confronting Death", 1888, and "Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring", 1891, all a little ghoulish but with a certain twist of humor. After all, Ensor was Belgian and Belgians have long had a subversive streak in their culture, expressed in a tradition of satire and parody in their literature and art (think Felicien Rops or René Magritte).
By the Turn of the Century, James Ensor had achieved recognition and success, but he had peaked artistically. While his paintings hung in major museums, he was named a Baron by King Albert and was awarded the Légion d'honneur, he was never able to produce the provocative yet magical works he had created in the late 19th Century. When he died in Ostend in 1949 he was a local legend with a devoted cult following. Now, 60 years later, he is receiving the credit he deserves for his unique and highly influential perspective.
I encourage you to check out the fabulous world of James Ensor on view at MoMA until September 21, 2009, after which it travels to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris until February 2010.