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James Ensor's Profound Paintings on View at Musée d'Orsay
James Ensor, "La raie", 1892. Huile sur toile, 80 x 100 cm. Bruxelles, Musées royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique © ADAGP, Paris 2009.

PARIS.- When presented at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels and at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, the work of James Ensor (1860-1949) is that of a Belgian painter who is both innovative and tortured. Presented at the Musée d’Orsay, his original and profound paintings are those of a 19th-century artist situated between Naturalism and Modernity. Presented at the MoMA, his work fits brilliantly and naturally into the great avant-garde movements that are the forte of this museum. Furthermore, it was this powerful originality that Alfred Barr stressed in 1940, when he acclaimed the "Tribulations of St. Anthony", declaring that Ensor was, at the time he produced this painting in 1887, “the boldest living artist”.

Sixty years after his death, James Ensor’s legacy is divided between his Belgian roots, his life in Ostend in fact, and his international reputation. It is divided, too, between the solid Naturalism of his early work and the masked imaginary creatures, “skeletalised”, virulent and caustic, that stride through the main part of his work with colourful, grimacing steps.

Almost one hundred and fifty years after his birth, Ensor remains a strange, unclassifiable painter, and the title “painter of masks”, attributed to him by his compatriot Émile Verhaeren does not fully define his unclassifiable, prolific, polymorphic work.

The MoMA and the Musée d’Orsay have therefore decided to revisit Ensor, and, one hundred and ten years after the failure of his first exhibition in Paris, to question once again his impenetrable masks and his menacing skeletons; to place him in the 20th-century where he largely belongs, having witnessed the dawning of Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, etc. and, in his own words, having ‘anticipated all the modern movements”, and also to place him at the heart of the 19th-century where he was certainly one of its unruly children, resolutely claiming a definitive place “between Manet and Van Gogh”.

With 90 paintings, drawings and engravings, the James Ensor exhibition, in four parts, enables us to take a new look at this painter who remains an enigma today, coming between Manet, Van Gogh and all the modernist movements.

A kind of modernity
The exhibition opens with Ensor’s early work. After training at the Académie de Beaux-Arts in Brussels, he rejected its teachings, and chose to return to work in his home town of Ostend. There, he explored his surroundings, exterior and interior, in many paintings and drawings. He produced landscapes, still lifes and portraits, as well as “genre scenes” featuring his sister, mother and aunt.

The critics, like Émile Verhaeren who produced the first monograph on Ensor in 1898, tried to draw a parallel with French Impressionism, which the artist rejected vigorously, arguing that his experiments into light were more profound and more subtle. “I have been mistakenly placed with the Impressionists, those plein air hacks who are so fond of pale colors. I was the first to understand the distortion that light inflicts upon line. Nobody else attached any importance to it ; painters just relied on what they saw. The Impressionist movement left me cold. Édouard Manet was no better than the painters of the old school,” he declared in 1899. The "Oyster Eater", the high point of his early Modern and Naturalist work, was rejected at the 1882 Salon in Antwerp. Ensor then committed himself to the liberalization of artistic exhibitions, and fought to become the leader of an artistic school. He was particularly involved in creating the group known as Les XX. In 1883, masks started to appear in his work, and Ensor went back to part of his work from the early 1880s to populate it with these masks and skeletons that were now part of his universe.

“Light has ennobled me”
Brought up on the shores of the North Sea, Ensor was passionate about the effects of light. Unlike Monet in particular, invited by Les XX to exhibit in 1886, and who saw it as a multitude of fleeting effects, Ensor perceived light in its fundamental unity.

This unity led him to a mystical vision that he expressed in 1885-86 in his series "The Haloes of Christ" or the "Sensitivities of Light". Presented at the Salon des XX in 1887, these enormous drawings did not receive the acclaim that Ensor had hoped. Everyone acclaimed Seurat’s "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte", also exhibited at the Salon des XX, but they could not understand Ensor’s submission.

Hurt, disappointed and despairing, (he confided: “The critics’ violent attacks have been destroying my convictions for some time, and I have suffered much through doubt. I have a very impressionable and sensitive nature)”, the artist took refuge behind his masks and his skeletons. The enormous "Christ’s Entry into Brussels" in 1889 (Los Angeles, The Paul Getty Museum) was his response to Seurat’s painting and to the detractors of his work. His new style, with its vivid colors, masks, banners and parade of strange characters, introduced a new phase of his work. He explained this development thus: “It should be noted that there has been a development in my style here. In order to make the tones rich and varied I had always blended the colours. Unfortunately, this mixing process altered certain paints, and some of the paintings have become darker. So I have now changed my approach, and have applied pure colours. I naturally looked to use striking effects and especially masks, where vivid tones predominate. I also liked these masks because they offended the public who had received me so badly.” (1898)

“Strangeness reigns everywhere”
Carnival and masks were part of Ensor’s family tradition. In 1887, at a time of great personal crisis over the lack of understanding he felt was directed at him, Ensor’s father and grandmother, to whom he was very close, both died. From then on, Death accompanied the masks. They form a parade or perform incomprehensible pantomimes. At the same time, Ensor took his revenge for the attacks directed at him, in a series of works whose vehemence and lack of constraint were unequalled in these final years of the century.

The painter of 112 self-portraits
The other area where Ensor gave vent to his terrible feeling of persecution was the selfportrait. He painted images of himself throughout his career. In his early paintings, he appeared young, dashing, full of hope and spirit, at times sad but still splendid. Soon, however, he vented his rancour by subjecting his image to a number of metamorphoses. He was a herring, a madman, a “skeleton”, etc. He identified himself with Christ and then with a humble pickled herring. He caricatured himself, made himself look ridiculous. He was both puppet master and puppet, in comedies and tragedies into which he would invite his detractors in order to settle old scores quite cruelly. From 1892 onwards, he began not only to paint himself, but also to depict himself among his paintings. Ensor became a character preparing his legend and his place in the history of painting over a very long period of time.

A selection of objects
Throughout the exhibition, objects, masks, seashells, a mermaid, all coming from the Ensor family house and souvenir shop, complete this fantastic and curious world, and show the close ties the artist had with his strange surroundings, described by Verhaeren in 1908. He described the studio, invaded by “disparate objects: masks, scraps of fabric, withered branches, shells, cups, pots, threadbare carpets, books lying all over the floor, prints piled up on chairs, empty picture frames leaning against the furniture and the inevitable skull looking at it all through the two empty holes of its absent eyes”. And the shop “with its large windows stuffed with trinkets that were of no interest at all. It was there, amid the seashells and mother of pearl, the vases from China and lacquer work from Japan, the versicolored feathers and the gaudy screens, it was there that the painter’s visual imagination composed its most unusual and most wide-ranging symphonies of color. With a touch that was both delicate and strong, subtle and raw, sober and dazzling, he could make a vibrant image from some humble eastern trinket made commonplace by fashion! And the well-shaped shell adorning the painted marble mantelpiece of some gloomy bourgeois household, would, through the magic and the alchemy of the artist, become a miracle of triumphant colour that would light up the most beautiful galleries of modern museums today. Ensor enjoyed himself amongst these thousands of exotic trifles, amongst these glistening, glassy spoils of the sea.”

Musée d' Orsay | James Ensor | Émile Verhaeren |

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