Jude Montague visited Ostend as part of the Ensor2024 celebrations, James Ensor in Flanders and Brussels, on the 75th anniversary of his death.
We look on as the James Ensor exhibition is still going up; this is a complicated show, and loans are coming in at the last minute. Mu.ZEE, in a former department store, is being transformed for this substantial Ensor show by adding extra walls, creating the impression of a traditional art museum, dividing the large rooms of commercial retail and creating necessary wall space. The show is part of a large Ensor enterprise for the anniversary year of 2024, our generation’s greatest endeavour to celebrate, explain, show and interpret his work, only overshadowed historically by the 1929 retrospective at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels when Ensor was very much alive and very much concerned with his own legacy. This ambitious exhibition also uses this opportunity to locate him in the trajectory of still life in modern art in Flanders.
Although Ensor is well known in the Belgian art scene as one of the most significant 19th and 20th-century painters, he is not so well known beyond his national borders, and many may not be aware of his contribution to modernism. His satirical pictures of masks, his performing skeletons, his unheimlich judges and pierrots and mocking witnesses have fixed their empty eyes on a cult following and have compelled the uncomfortable and disaffected new generations to set out their own psychological challenge to the status quo. This younger, active Ensor is the one that has best travelled outside Fine Art enthusiasm, and the experimenters of counter-culture have loved him longest. But for those who are admirers of technique, brushwork, palette choice, texture and what lies at the edges of or underneath the flower arrangements of a nature morte or vanitas study will find so much to enlighten and broaden their appreciation here, perhaps particularly as he is not known for this important part of his work.
In some ways, this is a very local or regional exhibition. We are in Ostend or Oostende, Ensor’s home for most of his life. He was born here and died here and lived close to the seafront and where this museum is now. His mother ran a souvenir shop, famous alongside other shop owners for selling sea shells and souvenirs, including the expressive masks of the carnival. These masquerade entertainments date back to mediaeval times, happening on Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, when costumed characters (usually male) with wax faces would go out on the street, march, dance and perform in a pagan-style procession, frightening off evil spirits with their own grotesque appearance. What an impression they made on the child Ensor, whose paintings repeatedly show mask-wearers or characters who have themselves become masks. And the large sea shells, raped from the oceans of the world through the port’s imperial importance, impressed him too with their fascinating mother-of-pearl interiors whose iridescent surface influenced his brushwork and colour choices, enabling him to step out of a dark, bourgeois interior into a pearly light.
Here in Ostend, the museum is close to Ensor’s home, itself a fascinating museum and well worth a visit; it has recently been expanded with an extra visitor experience, through which one can get a feel for the life of Ensor, how he walked the sea promenade, conversing with his liberal and left-wing intellectual milieu, watching the bathers entering the sea water and giving up their bourgeois respectability over to the salty splash of the waves. As a young rebel artist, he would mock the self-important in paint and etching, showing bottoms bouncing over the tickle of the waves and lifting the skirt, pulling down the trousers of the aspirational middle classes. If you have not been to the city or made it a study, this left-wing and intellectual history might be a surprise as it is a relatively sedate city compared to its larger neighbour, Antwerp, which struggles harder with the concerns of a port metropolis, notably drug smuggling. Ostend’s low-key groovy past feels gentler – Marvin Gaye wrote his neo-soul classic ‘Sexual Healing’ while recuperating in the town at the intervention of a club-owner friend.
In this exhibition of still life, so many of these aspects of Ensor’s life reflect on his core works here, and as he has a long life in paint, his pictures go through many phases. The selection of work. He lifted this established genre out of this gloom with lustrous paint textures and a pinky-eroticism, and the pictures illustrate this psychological change. He begins to invade his own still lives with the witness and presence of masks, creating a counterpoint to any careful interior arrangements. He was lucky to have an unusual home with interesting artefacts, and by allowing these into his work, they worked their own magic in stretching the art of the still life. To allow these objects in may not have been an easy decision for a young, ambitious artist who could easily be embarrassed by their domestic trappings and want to leave to reinvent themselves, but Ensor seems to have quite easily embraced the idea of allowing the personal register into other traditions. Certain boundaries that might have restricted others seem to have not been a constraining factor for him. The best example I can think of in his work is his vast ‘Christ’s Entry into Brussels’ (1889), in which Ensor identified himself as Christ, and the epic work was even rejected by his avant-garde peers of Les XX, those twenty painters designers and sculptures who set out to integrate ‘decorative’ with ‘major’ arts.
These core works by Ensor are nestled in the centre of the exhibition, carrying on their dialogue with the century of still-life artworks that circles them. There is a comprehensive catalogue that details well the stories and importance of the individual paintings and drawings, for there is also a selection of works on paper and prints by Ensor and those by other significant artists, and their works are included. It’s good to point out Anna Boch for her importance in the career of Ensor. She was the only female member of Les XX and was the first purchaser of Ensor’s work. ‘The Kitchen’ (1883-4) is her exhibited work, showing her personal, spontaneous brushwork and lively palette. And I am drawn to Hubert Bellis, an expert in representing surface material. For those who like picturesque yet disorderly kitchen compositions, his stunning techniques absolutely shine. His ‘immortal oysters’ may lack the psychological adventure that Ensor delivers, but he knows how to paint a freshly deheaded seafish. There are forerunners, contemporaries and modernists here, and in the epilogue, I am drawn to the painting of Jean Brusselmans, whose work seems to me to convey something about the printmaker. The plane of the picture has flattened somewhat but not entirely, and the still life has crept outside into the city, giving it an urban psychological element. Flowers have hidden faces, and there is a surrealist dream narrative that powers the impact of the piece. As a printmaking-fine-artist, I relate to this work, which also has an urban grittiness that reminds me of even later work from the 1970s.
This exhibition has much for so many, whatever the way in. For those fascinated by the evolution of still life, it is going to have a great deal to say, as this is such an important round-up of significant works, and the curation offers intelligent but not over-invasive information. For people who want the psychological disrupter, the game-changer Ensor, this show not only shows a fundamental side to Ensor’s oeuvre but also sheds light on his highly domestic and interior influences. Many experimenters with psychedelics take their adventures in their domestic environs. For the mind to fly, sometimes the body is pinned down in one place, and the journey becomes personal and allegorical rather than literal. Seen from this point of view, still life is a more natural companion to Ensor’s psychic travelling. For anyone interested in the application of paint, there are many revelations here that come from getting up close to the Ensors and other exceptional work. Ensor’s paint application is so particular and impossible to reproduce with the way it plays with light and reflection through photography and print that it is important to see the material object. Despite what he achieved technically in his iridescent handling of white and pale colours, few, even now, have followed in these footsteps. Always unique, Ensor was bold enough to embrace feathers, pinkish hues, roses, sea shells and the colours of silk and the sea within the paint technique while remaining epic and challenging in intent. I feel there are multiple exhibitions here for the price of one. And Ostend is just the place to see it.
Words and Photos by Jude Montague ©Artlyst 2023 Top Photo: James Ensor, Pierrot and skeleton in a yellow robe (1893)
Rose, Rose, Rose à mes yeu, James Ensor en het stilleven in België 1830-1930 , 16th December 2023 – 14 April 2024, Mu. ZEE, Ostend
Ensor2024, James Ensor in Flanders and Brussels, on the 75th anniversary of his death, is supported by the Flemish Government, and all the exhibitions, activities and events taking place in Ostend and Antwerp can be found Here