(The latest in a long line of art exhibitions reviewed after they close)
“Ensor was a scenographer, depicting a strange world that was neither tangible nor imaginary, populated by inscrutable beings”
- Curator Luc Tymans
The Sunless Seaside
I first saw the work of the Belgian artist James Ensor in an exhibition devoted to Carnival - 'Carnivalesque' at Brighton Museum, back in 2000. Fittingly enough, for as we'll come onto, Carnival was prevalent in his work, almost always at least implicit. Now any Carnival buff knows the festival to be inextricably connected to it's ostensible opposite - Lent. And so Ensor starts with Lent. Officially that's the wrong way round, for Carnival was supposed to yield to Lent. But then he was a somewhat contrary character, so let's follow his lead.
Take for example 'Afternoon in Ostend' (1881), where figures sit primly at afternoon tea, or the murky oil of 'The Bourgeois Salon' (1880, above). The light at the window is able to strike up some white echoes straight in front of it, but the single figure is determinedly turned away. And the exteriors were little less oppressive. In 'Large View of Ostend (Rooftops of Ostend)' (1884, below) those titular rooftops are crammed into the lower fifth of the canvas, huddled below a tempestuous sky. Not unlike Sickert's Dieppe, there's a sense of unease to Ensor's Ostend, made stronger for never being quite identifiable.
It's not an approach Ensor ever entirely abandons. 'Flowers and Vegetables' (below), dating from 1891, is that rare thing – a still life which virtually leers out at you. The ruddy reds and lurid greens must make for the most feral-looking vegetables in art history, as throbbing with life as any Van Gogh nature scene. Set against that those delicate blue bits of porcelain, it looks like the crusties have taken over the garden suburb. You can uproot nature and even fetch bits of it indoors, but it remains untameable.
But the underlying unease becomes more palpable and more fantastical as Ensor went on. For in a remarkable sea change, almost all of the successive works are devoted to what 'The Bourgeois Salon' shutters out. What is repressed is shown as returning, quite frequently erupting. In 'The Haunted Furniture' (1880), an early example, spirits rise from the sides of a great heavy wardrobe.
Skeletons At Work and Play
'The Skeleton Painter' (1896, above) is one of many images using the skull or full skeleton. The title is most likely some double-edged self-referential joke, the skeleton who painted skeletons. We don't see the figure's hands, so can't ascertain whether this is an animate skeleton or just someone in a skull mask. Skulls and masks are placed around the studio, suggesting either is possible. Though the eyeballed skull atop the easel seems more animate than the figure. It's widely seen as a kind of self-portrait, which would make that easel skull a kind of totem. (He'd also create the etching 'My Portrait as a Skeleton', 1889.)
Notably, there's no attempt to give the skeleton any shock appeal. It's entirely unlike covers to Gothic novels, with their long bone fingers stretching towards shrieking maidens. For one thing, sunlight pours in the room. In fact it's the 'natural' 'Bourgeois Salon' which takes place in the gloom, rather than this 'fantastical' work. And skeletons are always painted naturalistically, or even casually, like they belong to their environments. (See for example 'Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries', c. 1888/90.) TJ Clarke of the London Review of Books commended Ensor's “ability to convince us that horror and absurdity are familiar events, behaviours we all recognise from our daily round… Garishness and matter-of-factness were faces of the same coin.”
The show suggests a local origin for this imagery. The ongoing development of Ostend had disinterred mass graves, the residue of the Eighty Years War, reminding us that the past is rarely actually past. Remember the old Fall song lyric where unearthed graves are found to be “disease ridden, dusty, organic - and psychic”?
But it does also seem to be tapping into the same themes as Mexican popular art. As I said of the British Museum's 'Revolution on Paper' exhibition of Mexican prints:“The skeleton figure acts paradoxically, throwing emphasis onto the figures’ accoutrements (bosses’ top hats versus peasant caps), whilst confirming that these are only accoutrements for almost identical figures…. reducing us to the skeletons we all are underneath.” The face is just mask for the skull, which less represents death than the inescapable baseness of life.
Which is possibly most visible in 'Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring' (1891, above). What's striking isn't the armless war between jaws, like the figures are squabbling birds. Or even the way their tugging is emphasised by the angle of the clouds. It's the fine-looking clothes, the bizarre busby hat perched on the bone head. A human in a hat like that might even seem deserving of our respect. Whereas a skeleton is a ghoul, a savage mockery of status.
Following an an 1908 description of him by Emile Verhearen, Ensor has become known as “the painter of masks”. To the degree where the show insists this is too limited a frame, which needs busting open. Nevertheless, the motif is recurrent in his work.
As already seen in 'The Skeleton Painter' Ensor would casually mix his skull and mask motifs up. And we perhaps shouldn't try too hard to disentangle them. An artists' work rarely reduces to a neat set of symbols, which you can come along and fix a key to. Nevertheless, while Ensor is able to convey different expressions through skulls, the mask inherently gives greater variety and so becomes a broader symbol.
And as with the skull, the mask had a local connection for him. Ostend was home to the annual Ball of the Dead Rat, a carnivalesque masked ball. He even grew up, and later made his studio, above a shop where his mother sold carnival masks and similar goods.
And what did the mask mean in Carnival? Not merely the way we see them now, as a form of disguise. The masks were often associated with characters, and to don one was to effectively become that character. And if anything Ensor pushes that concept further. The masks often appears as the embodiments of spirits, as if they were themselves animate. As Laura Cumming wrote in the Guardian, Ensor's work is “a theatre where the masks can live their own existence.”
'Intrigue' (1890, above) is so famous a work it's not just the poster image but has the show named after it. (The last time I can think of that happening was Fuseli and the Tate's 'Gothic Nightmares' exhibition, back in 2006.) And here the figures seem not just living their own existence but pressing into ours, massing at the front of the work like they're about to erupt into our space. In particular the red coated woman with the baby seems to be projecting out of the frame, while the black slitted eyes of the main figure seem to be not even looking out as us but on a point beyond us. The figures are less alive than charged, animate energy virtually seething with malevolence. The work almost literally exudes menace.
There's not a sliver of human flesh to be found, the two hands gloved, the high collars - particularly that raised black collar on the main figure - obscuring any join at the neck. It's reminiscent of the trope in films such as 'The Invisible Man' (1933), in which a figure is unwrapped to reveal only an absence. Similarly, in 'The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse' (1889, below) some figures seem to have had their spirits desert them, leaving inert masks attached to husks of clothing on the ground. The hand of the main standing figure is upraised, as if she might magic motion back into them.
‘The Intrigue’ can also be traced back to an event in Ensor’s biography, but accurate or not that’s scarcely the point of the work – it’s source not explanation. Overall, and typically of Ensor, the painting's neither explicable as a scene nor reducible to a set of symbols. And that’s kind of the point. It presents a kind of erupting irrationality, against which we’re like the defensively doubting rationalist in the horror film, stuttering about some pat psychological explanation. Ensor himself declared “reason is the enemy of art.”
And this is not just to do with Carnival but the childhood sense of animism, the feeling every object in the world is possessed of a spirit unknowable to you. This can seem charming, as we see children form attachments to inanimate objects. But at the time, as those thoughts run through your head, it meant even a domestic scene could seem charged with danger.
The Crowd As Collage
Okay, some social levelling, masks...what else do you need to create Carnival? Of course, there has to be a crowd. A party needs invites. And as if by magic Ensor's other most famous work, 'The Entry of Christ into Brussels', foregrounds this. (Represented here not by the giant, four-metre plus painting of 1888, but an 1895 etching, above.) Though Christ can be found in there if you search, the work's more concerned with the figures which surround him. They're a motley array, a jumble of individual heads – this is crowd as collage.
The dominant notion has become that there is something reductive and deindividuating about a crowd, that being in one somehow makes you less than what you are. Yet when you’re in a crowd you’re part of it and yourself, at one and the same time. We all know this from experience. And this precisely what Ensor depicts. They're not a deindividuated swarm conjured up by popular phrases such as 'mob mentality', they're individuals amassed.
And there's a juxtaposition between the crowd and the neat military line of soldiers behind them. (A device Ensor re-employs elsewhere, for example in 'The Strike', 1886.) They're like the buckling bottle whose task it is to contain the frothing, fermenting alcohol. The crowd are shown at a physical distance. But that's not how the work feels. Ensor depicts crowds the way some artists do the sea, their teeming feels like an invitation to dive in. To quote Laura Cumming again: “Ensor is festive even when devastating or macabre”. The bawdy and the grotesque are bedfellows.
And if Ensor was the painter of anything, it wasn't masks but crowds. 'Skeleton Painter', showing his studio strewn with masks and skulls, can give rise to the notion he had a hermetic world-view - his imagery cast no wider than the room about him.
And so he comes to be depicted as some reclusive outsider artist, such as in Timothy Hyman's description of him as “working alone through long, silent days in his fifth-floor attic high above the family’s carnival shop.”
And yet, news though it may be to some, the art world is not the world. Yes, Ostend insulated Ensor from the art world, which he found confining and regulating. But that doesn't mean he hid away from Ostend, like some recluse. Let's remember his family shop was not selling antiques, but was outfitter to an ongoing carnival tradition. And you can see that in the work, a love of the crowd far too visceral to be theoretical.
There may, however, be one or two elements of truth to this. Ensor is known to have anarchist sympathies, and he went on to influence political artists, such as George Grosz. And at times these can come out in the open. (For example, the full-size version of 'Christ's Entry' contains a banner proclaiming “Vive La Sociale”.) But he was not primarily a political artist. He less saw the crowd as an instrument of social change and more loved it for it's own sake, luxuriating in it's disreputable tumultuousness. And of course these days we are more wary of making clear, causal connections between Carnival and revolt than others have been in the past. (Carnival yields to Lent, remember?)
Further, Ensor exhibits a paradox between an artist with a highly personalised cosmology, and one influenced by folk traditions. And the two often come together in his style. His compositions are often strangely arbitrary, heads and feet lopped off by his borders like he ran out of room. Just as some artists are Just Abstract Enough, perhaps we need a name for artists who are Just Outside Enough. Artists who, like Ensor, had formal art training and could draw conventionally when they needed, but didn't feel at all beholden to it. Timothy Hyman suggests the term “exceptionals”, presumably drawing on the twin meaning of ‘outside’ and ‘beyond’.
'The Baths at Ostend'(1890, above), for example, is so crammed with comic incident it's not entirely dissimilar from children's comic artists such as Leo Baxendale. (If a more lewd variant.) In fact, particularly with it's use of coloured pencil, it might even be a child's drawing. It's noticeable how much emphasis there is on voyeurism, with gapers down virtually the whole left side and the monocled figure in the lower centre.
Not Even Past
Try again to find the actual Christ in 'Christ's Entry Into Brussels'. There's a short cut, you can track him down by his halo, it's yellow an echo of the sun. This Medieval device, which had long since passed from art's vocabulary, makes a return. Similarly, 'Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise' (1887) uses a local Belgian landscape for this Biblical fable. It's total uninterest in fidelity to the Middle East again echoes Medieval art.
And while 'Christ's Entry' might hide the title star in a crowd, Ensor often focused upon him. For example in the late 'Christ In Agony' (1931) or 'The Man of Sorrows' (1891, above) – where he's painted as if saturated with ruddy reds, to the point where it's hard to tell head and hair from blood. In fact it wouldn't be too hard to believe the thing had actually been painted in blood. There's none of the solemn dignity we're used to seeing given to Jesus, those harshly over-exaggerated features look more savage than John the Baptist.
To Ensor as with the Medieval artist the halo's a transpiring symbol, yet the face and body of Jesus is very much a real thing. His blood is not a religious thing, it's thick red stuff. Like many Medieval religious images, it's more macabre than moral.
All of which seems very much at odds with our idea of art of this time. Tuymans comments that Carnivalesque art had originally rebelled against Classicism, conveying order through it's neat rules of composition. Whereas for Ensor the dominant culture was Modernism, most of which he volubly detested. It really comes back to the image of the disinterred skeleton. Just as reason was a thin skin over the irrational, the present was a barely coping mechanism for holding back the past. The bodies just don't stay buried.
It's hard to find a term for the art history he refers to. I guess the point was less that it was an integral era, named and scrupulously annotated, and more that his interest went to the gaps – past-Classical yet pre-Romantic. People have sometimes seen an inheritance from his geographical forebearers, the Flemish Renaissance. There's Breugel's interest in the culture of the common folk, and Bosch's phantasmagorias. When people compare Ensor to Bosch perhaps they’re seeing a similar collision between the Medieval and the contemporary, for all that the two artists were working in different eras.
Held in the Academy's upstairs Sackler gallery, this is a relatively small exhibition, comprising about eighty works. So it's strange when curator Luc Tuymans sacrifices space to works by Ensor's contemporaries, a piece by himself and at one point a pointless fake video where an actor portrays Ensor perambulating on the seafront. Tuymans is himself an artist, considered well-known enough for his name to become incorporated into the show's title. And while it is often artists who understand other artists best, perhaps this sort of indulgent decision-making comes with celebrity curators.
Conversely, the show does give space to Ensor's prints and drawings. Though paintings are often held by curators to trump other media, Ensor himself saw them as equally important. In fact he prized his prints the highest, because they were the easiest disseminated. Overall, while it would have been nice to see a few more Ensors at this Ensor show, when even today he is so often overlooked there's never any reason to knock seeing Ensors.
Coming soon! More art exhibitions reviewed after they have closed. (While stocks last.)