James Ensor, curated by Luc Tuymans
Royal Academy, London.
Until January 29.


In the 1930s, as he fled Nazi Germany, Einstein passed through the Belgian port of Ostend, en route to the United States, and met the painter James Ensor.  He asked him what he painted, to which Ensor replied “nothing”.

On a bleak level, that was true as the masks and skeletons that populate his world either annihilate the living, breathing human personality or belittle its self-importance through satire.  Ultimately, we are nothing and the skin of our faces is only a mask.

Even Ensor, however, had enough self-belief to keep on painting through his long life and was sufficiently determined to leave something behind in the form he intended it to rank etching the superior medium.

“Poor painting! An art exposed to the incompetence of restorers and the imperfections of reproductions,” he remarked to his friend, the historian Albert Croquez.  “I therefore prefer the etching as a means of expression.”

The same subjects and themes straddle both forms.  This exhibition, curated by Belgian contemporary artist Luc Tuymans, includes an etching of Ensor’s The Entry of Christ into Brussels, his most famous work.  The copper etching is dated 1895, just after the painting of 1888-9, whose linkage of popular movements, crowd mentality and the coming of Christ was so frowned upon it was not exhibited until 1929.

Apart from his years studying art in Brussels, where even as a student he clashed with the establishment, Ensor lived his entire life in Ostend “on the edge of the continent and of society,” as the exhibition notes put it.

In the summer, Ostend was a fashionable resort.  In the winter, it was wind-swept and empty and Ensor lived cooped up in the curio shop run by his mother and his aunt that sold masks and chinoiserie.

The earliest work exhibited is the Bathing Hut from 1876, when Ensor was only 16.  Already there’s a wryness in his vision as the lonely hut teeters on its wheels throwing a shadow in the vivid Ostend light.

Ensor’s early works also capture the stasis and claustrophobia of the late 19th-century bourgeois, domestic interior.  An afternoon in Ostend, 1881, depicts the corseted formality of a lady visiting for tea, apparently more out of duty than desire as a heavy clock ticks on the mantelpiece suggesting the slow passage of time.

Meanwhile, in the studio upstairs, one imagines, Ensor was spending his afternoons painting self-portraits, in one case with a flowered, feathered hat – inspired by the great Flemish artist Rubens — in others as a skeleton.  He is the skeleton painter at work and he is the very late Ensor: a dusty, reclining skeleton in “My Portrait in 1960”, a drawing dated 1888.  Born in 1860, Ensor died in 1949.

Skeletons feature so prominently in Ensor’s world at least in part because, as the booming Ostend was constructed, he witnessed the unearthing of bones from mass graves dating back to the Siege of Ostend during the Eighty Years’ War of the 17th-century when Holland sought independence from Spanish rule.

As Belgium continued to be the cockpit of Europe in the 20th-century, the horrors of World War also informed Ensor’s awareness of his own mortality.

Skeletons for Ensor are at once symbols of death and a sardonic commentary on our own littleness as they engage in the same activities as the living, such as squabbling over scraps.

Possibly Ensor’s most celebrated skeleton picture is his Skeletons Fighting over a Kipper – in French, un hareng saur, which sounds like “art Ensor” and is an allusion to the critics who ripped apart his work.

In Britain, despite Ensor’s English father, it is his fate still to be a marginal, quirky figure.  In Belgium, where the work hangs in Brussels’ fine arts museum, the picture has become part of the cultural establishment and is the context in which his art is best understood.

His drawing of the Cuirassiers at Waterloo in 1891 has resonance on either side of the Channel, but it might take a Belgian to detect the very Belgian quality of the landscape in his Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise of 1887.

His fellow countryman and fellow artist Luc Tuymans is best-placed of all to penetrate the masks of Ensor’s work.

Intrigue, regarded as Ensor’s greatest painting, was the first of Ensor’s works Tuymans saw as a teenager.

It shows a group of masked carnival goers – again a phenomenon that is part of Belgium’s Catholic culture, rather than immediately understood in Britain – that surges towards the viewer with the menace of school bullies.

Ensor was renowned for his Dead Rats Ball, a masked ball created with his fellow painters and still organised every year in Ostend.

But the event that gets UNESCO recognition is the Carnival of Binche, one of Europe’s oldest street carnivals, which takes places in a French-speaking Walloon municipality to the south of Brussels.

In the middle of one of the exhibition rooms is a gigantic ostrich feather headdress typical of those worn at the Carnival of Binche by clowns known as Gilles, which provide the subject of a work by Tuymans included in this Ensor exhibition he curates with such feeling.  True to the legacy of Ensor, Tuymans’ ghostly clown belongs more to the charnel house than the carnival.

Barbara Lewis © 2016.