London’s Royal Academy (RA) has unveiled the first major exhibition of the Belgian painter James Ensor’s (1860-1949) work to be held in the UK in twenty years. The exhibition is curated by the highly regarded Contemporary painter Luc Tuymans, one of Belgium’s most prominent modernist artists. Ensor was widely considered to be an important precursor of Expressionism. Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans will bring together some 70 paintings, drawings and prints by the artist, the vast majority of which have been drawn from major Belgian collections. The exhibition will be curated by the renowned contemporary painter and one of Belgium’s foremost artists, Luc Tuymans, who will bring a fresh perspective to the selection and presentation of Ensor’s work.
A highly skilled draughtsman and painter, Ensor had a deep appreciation of the poetic possibilities of light and a lifelong devotion to the inherent creativity of the mind. His eclectic visual language drew upon a wealth of subjects from the traditional to the fantastic, producing an extraordinary body of work that spanned poetic evocations of the Belgian countryside and coastline, to disturbing visions of imagined worlds. Ensor’s works have continued to baffle, intrigue and defy categorisation in equal measure, providing one of the most singular and distinctive bodies of work to be produced at the turn of the twentieth century.
Born in 1860 to an English father and a Belgian mother, Ensor was raised in the coastal town of Ostend, where his family ran a curio shop which he described as “an inextricable jumble of assorted objects constantly being knocked over by a number of cats, deafening parrots, and a monkey…”. It was this somewhat eccentric environment, as well as Ostend’s annual carnival and the archaeological excavations at the time, from which Ensor drew much of his later imagery such as masks, theatrical costumes, and skulls. Referred to as “the painter of masks” by poet Émile Verhaeren in 1908, Ensor wrote: “The mask means to me: the freshness of colour, extravagant decorations, wild generous gestures, strident expressions, exquisite turbulence.”
As a student at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Ensor was an outsider who rebelled against traditional teachings and was drawn towards the avant-garde salons of artists and intellectuals at the time, an environment in which he flourished. Heartened by these encounters, Ensor returned to Ostend in 1880 where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1883 he co-founded the progressive artist group Les Vingt, yet even this once stridently avant-garde group proved too safe for Ensor who became increasingly isolated from the external world and remained committed, throughout a long and belatedly successful career, to his individual style.
Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans will include a selection of significant paintings, drawings, and prints by the artist which span the breadth of his entire career, some of which have never been exhibited in the UK. The exhibition will feature three of Ensor’s most important works: The Intrigue, 1890 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), which depicts a newly-wed couple encircled by sinister masked figures, The Skate, 1892 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels), a powerful, enigmatic still life and Self-portrait with Flowered Hat, 1883 (Mu.Zee, Ostend), a humorous reference to Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of Susanna Lunden (National Gallery, London) of 1622.
Ensor’s works will be accompanied by a selection of Gilles de Binche carnival masks, two works on paper by Belgian Symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert and Guillaume Bijl’s 2002 black and white filmJames Ensor in Ostend. The exhibition will also include Gilles de Binche, 2004, by Luc Tuymans, whose on-going concern with light in his practice is similar to that of Ensor. Tuymans’ curation of the exhibition will engage with the sense of mystery, anonymity, and mischievousness associated with masks.