James Ensor at MoMA

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Skeletons Trying to Warm Themselves (1889)

James Ensor
June 28, 2009 – September 21, 2009

Funny peculiar. If you are a devoted reader of ID tags in museums, you may have spotted one or two attached to James Ensor’s exquisitely repellent works. He’s an eccentric choice for a big bow-wow retrospective. Even more so when you consider that several of New York’s regular critics seem to prefer the current Ensor show at MoMA to the powerful Francis Bacon show uptown at the Met. Was this really credible? I wandered in mostly to satisfy my curiosity, and curious turned out to be the operative word. Despite his British-sounding name, Ensor lived his entire life in Belgium, mostly secluded in an upstairs apartment above his parents’ old curiosity shop, which sold trinkets to tourists but also carnival masks of the kind that their hermetic son would use to morbid effect in his art.

Ensor was a gifted pictorialist. His early generic portraits, still lifes, and landscapes display a knack for Barbizon-style atmosphere and bourgeois pleasantness. But somewhere in that suffocating apartment, staring out at a passing scene he grew to find grotesque, ordinary life became horrific. Faces turned into skulls, fleeting expressions into frozen jeering rictuses, quotidian activity into a dance of fear. Ensor is the master of faintly surreal japery before Surrealism was born (the show begins in the 1880s and is basically over by the First World War, even though the artist survived until 1949).

So far as technique goes, Ensor discarded definite outlines and easily recognized shapes. His revelers, grotesques, demons, and skeletons barely materialize from their seedbed of private hallucination.  Ensor applied paint transparently—he dilutes strong carnival tints of red, blue, and green into candy pastels—and one is reminded of Redon if that delicate artist had been an obsessive-compulsive. I found it fatiguing visually to concentrate too  long on Ensor’s myriad splotchy dabs, which are like pointillism viewed through a hand-held magnifier. Occassionally, however, the technique perfectly matches his subject, as in an expulsion from the Garden of Eden where the miniaturized figures of Adam and Eve are swooped upon by filmy, diaphanous angels that really evoke celestial embodiment.

The problem with Ensor, who can’t seriously be spoken of in the same breath as Bacon, is that his japery rarely sounds a deeper note. He thinks that painted society amounts to painted death’s heads, and that’s that. As with Aubrey Beardsley, another morbid sensationalist, your initial frisson fades quickly—at least mine did. I felt sorry for a recluse of Ensor’s undoubted gifts who portrayed himself in one small work as the crucified Christ, with the letters INRI changed to ENSOR over the savior’s head and a motley crew of commedia dell’ arte buffoons scattered at the foot of the cross. These represent the local art critics who barely acknowledged his existence, disdained him when they did, and knew nothing of his lonely grandiosity.  There’s a neurotic self-importance that I find offputting in Ensor, a compulsion to make himself the center of attention while pushing away real human contact at the same time.

In time Ensor eventually received acclaim, being made a baron by the Belgian king in 1929. He remained in his home town of Ostende through the Nazi occupation, and after the war he was a familiar sight, we are told, taking his daily constitutional around town. I imagine that going outdoors didn’t require him to leave the world inside, one that is too redolent of pitiable psychological distortions for me to visit longer than half an hour. Others may feel quite differently, but then, I always skipped the fun house when I went to the county fair.

The Intrigue (1890)

The Intrigue (1890)

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Sometimes, especially at a museum like MoMA, we need nothing less than to be slapped in the face. I can think of no other artist who is better at waking me up more rudely, and perceptively, than Ensor. It seems a wee irresponsible to write a review of an exhibition as large and rich as the Ensor bonanza at MoMA while openly admitting to having only viewed it for 30 minutes. Now, don’t get me wrong. This certainly wasn’t a perfect retrospective. I found myself disappointed on numerous levels, mostly missing crucial works–and “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” certainly wasn’t the only strangely absent picture (I realize this was likely a result of loan logistics as much as curatorial choice, but it was still tough to get over)–and feeling a lack of balance in the selection of works. However, Ensor isn’t to be blamed for these shortfalls. Rather, the work that was present was more than enough to enhance the artist’s already strong reputation as a painter’s painter. Remember, this guy was working at the same time as Gauguin. His surfaces are as wonderfully cruddy and rich as Kiefer or an early Rauschenberg and his bold coloristic statements make Frankenthaler and Noland seem timid. While his subject matter is certainly morbid, I think it is far more subtle and sophisticated than a simple sledgehammer to the head. Ensor’s paintings still seem as psychologically intense and complex as anything being done today, not to mention how radical they must have seemed when they were exhibited in the 1890s. Bacon is no slouch. I liked that exhibition, as an exhibition, as well or better than the Ensor exhibition. However, its hard to compare apples with oranges. While they are two of the most psychologically charged painters I can think of, their painterly language is so utterly different it seems impossible to compare them, nevertheless declare one “better” than the other. For a good’ ol’ aesthetic slap in the face, Ensor’s my man.

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