James Ensor (1860-1949) is one of those artists whose name is fairly familiar, but whose work hovers in a mental netherworld of art history. So MoMA’s overview of this Belgian artist offers welcome insight into his weird, intriguing oeuvre that overlapped many influential movements and artists before nestling most comfortably with the expressionists of the early 20th century. The show, which runs June 28–Sept 21 and was organized by Anna Swinbourne, the museum’s assistant curator of painting and sculpture, is ordered chronologically and comprises about 120 works. Most were done in the 1880s and 90s, the decades of his richest output that saw the rapid location, refinement, and evolution of his voice.
It’s easy to play the association game while looking at his early stuff in which he honed his technique—streetscapes/Monet; still lifes/Cézanne; full, flattened figure/Manet; interiors bathed with northern European light/Vermeer; and so on. Paintings that showed he had mastered traditional painting technique featured not society types but regular folk, such as in The Oyster Eater (1882) and The Drunkards (1883).
In the mid-1880s, what would become signature motifs began creeping into his sketches and compositions. He lived in the beach resort town of Ostend where his family owned a souvenir shop that sold masks. These loaded narrative devices, and skeletons, would become trademarks of his paintings. The artist also created political satire and cutting commentary in the late 1880s. Although he was clearly facile with traditional technique, he often chose a deliberately naïve style of composition that proved highly effective, as in his Boschian beach scenes or a canvas chock-filled with masks and his own face.
Ensor, who had a light-filled studio, often lavished upon his macabre subjects a discordantly beautiful light. But that white light also took on symbolism in his many religious-themed images. He depicted Christ in numerous scenes and allegories. In Tribulations of St. Anthony (1887), a wide shaft of heavenly light cuts a diagonal through the foreground’s deep reds. And Masks Confronting Death (1888) is notable for its creamy light as well as its short, scrubby brush strokes.
In a quirky body of work, two works stood out in particular. One is The Skate (1892), a still life that at first glance seems to be fairly traditional, depicts an array of sea creatures, including a conch shell and some small fish. The eponymous subject, however, lies on its back, exposing its pale underside—organs, tentacles, grimacing face, and all. I can’t actually say that I’ve ever seen a skate’s “front,” but it sure looks like something from a sci-fi movie.
Another remarkable painting, small in size, is Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring (1891). Where do you even begin to parse the title, let alone the digest the bizarre depiction of it—apparently representative of critics picking apart his work? And yet it is a riveting composition, two boldly painted skeletons, one wearing a fur hat, in a dog-style tug-of-war with a fish, suspended in a cloud-puffed sky. It encapsulates Ensor’s oeuvre—strange, well executed, understandable perhaps only to the artist himself—and yet undeniably fascinating.
Image: Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring. 1891. Oil on panel, 6 5/16 x 8 7/16″ (16 x 21.5 cm). Musées royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels