Sunday, 31 January 2016

ART SUNDAY - JAMES ENSOR

“My art tends toward the literary. My pictures tend toward the outskirts of painting: But why generalise? It is possible to realise one thing or another, according to the impressions gained from one point of view or another. But it is too difficult to make a general rule.” – James Ensor

James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor (13 April 1860 – 19 November 1949) was a Belgian painter and printmaker, an important influence on expressionism and surrealism who lived in Ostend for almost his entire life. He was associated with the artistic group Les XX.

Ensor’s father, James Frederic Ensor, born in Brussels of English parents, was a cultivated man who studied engineering in England and Germany. Ensor’s mother, Maria Catherina Haegheman, was Belgian. Ensor himself lacked interest in academic study and left school at the age of fifteen to begin his artistic training with two local painters. From 1877 to 1880, he attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where one of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor first exhibited his work in 1881. From 1880 until 1917, he had his studio in the attic of his parents’ house. His travels were very few: Three brief trips to France and two to the Netherlands in the 1880s, and a four-day trip to London in 1892.

Ensor was an acknowledged master by the time he was 20 years old. After a youthful infatuation with the art of Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens, he adopted the vivacious brushstroke of the French Impressionists. When Ensor’s works were rejected by the Brussels Salon in 1883, he joined a group of progressive artists called Les Vingt ( Les XX, The Twenty). During this period, in such works as his “Scandalised Masks” (1883), he began to depict images of grotesque fantasy—skeletons, phantoms, and hideous masks. Ensor’s interest in masks probably began in his mother’s curio shop.

His “Entry of Christ into Brussels” (1888), filled with carnival masks painted in smeared, garish colours, provoked such indignation that he was expelled from Les Vingt. Ensor, nevertheless, continued to paint such nightmarish visions as “Masks (Intrigues)” (1890) and “Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man” (1891).

As criticism of his work became more abusive, the artist became more cynical and misanthropic, a state of mind given frightening expression in his “Portrait of the Artist Surrounded by Masks”. He finally became a recluse and was seen in public so seldom that he was rumoured to be dead. After 1900 Ensor’s art underwent little change. When, in 1929, his Entry of Christ into Brussels was first exhibited publicly, King Albert of Belgium conferred a baronetcy on him.

As Ensor achieved belated recognition in the final years of the 19th century, his style softened and he painted less. Critics have generally seen Ensor’s last fifty years as a long period of decline. The aggressive sarcasm and scatology that had characterised his work since the mid-1880s was less evident in his few new compositions, and much of his output consisted of mild repetitions of earlier works. Significant works of Ensor’s late period include “The Artist’s Mother in Death” (1915), a subdued painting of his mother’s deathbed with prominent medicine bottles in the foreground, and “The Vile Vivisectors” (1925), a vehement attack on those responsible for the use of animals in medical experimentation.

James Ensor is considered to be an innovator in 19th-century art. Although he stood apart from other artists of his time, he significantly influenced such 20th-century artists as Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, George Grosz, Alfred Kubin, Wols, Felix Nussbaum, and other expressionist and surrealist painters of the 20th century. The yearly philanthropic “Bal du Rat Mort” (Dead Rat Ball) in Ostend continues a tradition begun by Ensor and his friends in 1898.

His works are in many public collections, notably the Modern Art Museum of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ostend. Major works by Ensor are also in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. A collection of his letters is held in the Contemporary Art Archives of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. The Ensor collections of the Flemish fine art museums can all be seen at the James Ensor Online Museum (http://jamesensor.vlaamsekunstcollectie.be/).

The painting above is Ensor’s “The Despair of Pierrot” of 1892 and is typical of his oeuvre. The Commedia Dell’ Arte characters Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin typify the eternal triangle of relationships, and Ensor’s obsession with masks can be allowed to vent in this thematic wonderland. The central jealous and despairing Pierrot is depicted in his blackest misery while Columbine and Harlequin are jauntily making their escape towards the windmill in the upper left. The masked figures around Pierrot seem to be deriding him and mocking his despair. It is a powerful image and one which creates unease, anxiety and disquietude. The blues and browns of the palette complement and contrast one another and contribute to the psychological effect of the painting.

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