James Ensor

Paris, Musée d’Orsay, from 20 October 2009 to 4 February 2010

1. James Ensor (1860-1949)
Lady in Distress, 1882
Oil on canvas -100.5 x 80 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN

This exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was presented from June to September 2009. Curators from both museums have thus worked jointly and it is obvious that the partnership has resulted in a coherent and thorough project. It is well known that in the case of artists with long careers where renewed inspiration is not always patent, visitors find themselves walking through rooms showing repetitive periods, with works seeming almost pastiches or products of a weakening talent which reflect poorly on the painter’s image. In this case, the presentation at Orsay limits the contents of the show to the early stages of the artist’s career and to his most flamboyant period, with only a few pieces to illustrate his last, and not very innovative, period. With the exception of a self-portrait from 1937, Skinny People Sitting down to a Meal from 1915, Moses and the Birds from 1924 and a few drawings, the oeuvre brought together here spans essentially the last two decades of the 19th century.

2. James Ensor (1860-1949)
Adam and Eve
Cast out of Paradise
, 1887
Oil on canvas - 205 x 245 cm
Anvers, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Photo : Courtesy
Lukas-Art in Flanders. ©ADAGP, Paris 2009

The first section of the exhibition, “Modernity”, reveals a painter in search of himself ; after leaving the Académie in Brussels, where he disliked the teaching, Ensor withdrew into an intimate universe to which Ostende lends its rather sad “colours”. When Verhaeren compared him in 1898 to the Impressionists, we can understand why Ensor protested so vehemently. His views of Ostende or his portraits, which are in no way Impressionist, fall within a solid Naturalism but the diversity in the treatment is astounding : how does the admirable Lady in Distress (ill. 1), diaphanous and with a superb chromatic harmony, relate to the “coarse” Woman Eating Oysters, with its thick touches and awkward composition or to The Afternoon at Ostende, which is so intimate as to announce Vuillard’s interiors ? All of these paintings however, date from the same year, 1881. Though they may not yet reveal any, or not much, of the originality of his work a few years later, his drawings of the same period, on the other hand, allow a glimpse of the dreamlike and grotesque world of his imagination which became so dear to the painter. It is interesting to see that this vein found expression early on and did so freely in an intimate medium whereas the pursuit of “great” painting kept him from associating oil, large formats and spontaneous inspiration at that point : The Nude with Curtain, The Flea, The Hippogryph all show this. The following room clearly shows the change and liberation in Ensor’s thinking as he discovered the power of light. Forms lose their matter in favor of halos and luminous masses as the artist makes a break with traditional representation : the fact that Christ is at the center of this reflection uniting light and mysticism is very revealing. The series of Visions. Auras of Christ or the Sensitivity of Light, constitutes a remarkable theoretical as well as plastic compendium of Ensor’s art. All of the formal structures are let loose making way for what will then characterize his painting in a sort of revelation : a bubbling-over, movement, freedom of composition with parallel scenes and mini-plays recalling medieval art, caustic art imbued with melancholy, a contemporary eye and critical social sense. Ensor, however, also made claim to the freedom in colours. In a splendid room, half a dozen “animated landscapes” together produce a fascinating ensemble. Christ Walking on the Sea (1885), Adam and Eve Cast out of Paradise (ill. 2), The Tower at Lisseweghe (1890), The Domain at Arnheim (1890) etc. all proceed from a sort of “expressionist” Tachisme which Robert Hoozee compares in the catalogue to Turner and Monet but which also recalls just as much Gustave Moreau and his oils during their elaboration, veritable studies by means of chromatic masses which precede, and finally determine as we know, the appearance of motifs.

3. James Ensor (1860-1949)
The Masks
Poking Fun at Death
, 1888
Oil on canvas - 81.3 x 100,3 cm
New York, The Museum of Modern Art
Photo : MoMA ©ADAGP, Paris 2009

The year 1887 constituted a decisive turning point in Ensor’s career : a year of mourning (he lost his grandmother and his father), a year of confrontation with Seurat’s art whose La Grande Jatte is exhibited at the XX and, finally, a year of relative failure in the eyes of the public and the critics. This “Passion” in the life of the painter, deeply felt, pushes him to a radical change in his expression, both in subject and treatment. There is really a Baudelaire-like dimension in Ensor’s attitude and art, something overlooked by the art critics who studied him. The bitterness, the rejection of a mercantile society and philistine values inspired him to depict violent scenes which exploit a demonic sacredness : the masques are there to hide the ugliness of reality while the skeletons incarnate, if one may say so, the vanity of the world. Ensor went so far as to take old works and drawings and “mask” them, a behavior reflecting the extent of his virulent feelings. Many Japanese masks, from the artist’s collection, are presented here along with objects designed by Ensor recalling his childhood and the eclectic family store in Ostende : Composition with Shells and Skull with Flowered Hat.

4. James Ensor (1860-1949)
The Intrigue, 1890
Oil on canvas - 90 x 150 cm
Anvers, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Photo : Courtesy Lukas-Art in Flanders.
©ADAGP, Paris 2009

5. James Ensor (1860-1949)
Entry of Christ
into Brussels
, 1898
Etching heightened
with watercolor - 24.8 x 35.5 cm
Ostende, Kunstmuseum aan Zee
Photo : Daniël Kievith ©ADAGP, Paris 2009

Whether it be drawings, engravings or paintings, the works of this period are obviously the high point of Ensor’s art and the selection of canvases on display is excellent both in quality and number. Although the more violent images are of obvious interest, they also suffer from an iconography which is at times border-line with caricature despite the fact that we perfectly understand their meaning. The paintings devoid of narrative and contextual rage are real masterpieces thanks to their universal reach. The Masks Poking Fun at Death (ill. 3),The Intrigue (ill. 4), Death and the Masks (1897) have become major icons of art of any age. How can we not regret, due to no fault of the curators, the absence of the immense Entry of Christ into Brussels, held at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles ? An Ensor exhibition without this painting is a bit like a cenotaph : the body of the Oeuvre itself is missing and it would be right to wonder if a full-size photographic reproduction wouldn’t be justified as the enhanced engraving from 1898 is not consolation enough (ill. 5). We also wonder why this essential work is reproduced only on a quarter-page above of one of the essays, in the exhibition catalogue. Who could imagine a work on Leonardo with a Mona Lisa the size of a stamp ?

6. James Ensor (1860-1949)
Ensor with Masks, 1899
Oil on canvas - 120 x 80 cm
Komaki, Menard Art Museum
Photo : Meanrd Art Museum
©ADAGP, Paris 2009

The staging, simple and pertinent, offers several spaces devoted to graphic arts where visitors can admire an extensive number of engravings at different stages and also drawings. Finally, the last section presents about thirty of the “112 self-portraits” of the artist. Here we find infinite variations of this self-representation so dear to Ensor in the strangest and most revealing of forms, from a skeleton to Christ or his portrait “in disguise” without overlooking the famous fight for the red herring. The most touching is obviously Ensor with Masks (ill. 6) : held in Japan, this extraordinary and profoundly human canvas presents the artist in all his majesty, the only real face among a crowd of masks. The message of such a work is clear : a being without pretense, the artist is also the lighthouse described by Baudelaire which dissipates the darkness of incomprehension and unmasks beauty. The last exhibition on James Ensor in France took place at the Petit Palais in 1990 ; twenty years later, the presentation at the Musée d’Orsay offers an even wealthier vision of this unclassifiable work which nevertheless ranks among the major sources of 20th century art.

Collective work, under the supervision of Laurence Madeline and Anna Swinbourne, James (art) Ensor, Paris, Musée d’Orsay/RMN, 2009, 288 pages, 48 euros, ISBN : 978-2-7118-5604-6

Although we fully agree with Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond’s opinion about the fact that this exhibition is very interesting, we do however regret the weak catalogue which limits itself to a few essays (whose interest is not called into question here) but which is nevertheless lacking in content. Furthermore, it is hard to use as readers need to consult the chronological list of works exhibited in order to find the conservation place of paintings, drawings or engravings. These are not accompanied by entries, historical background nor bibliography.

Didier Rykner

Visitor information : Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 62, rue de Lille, 75343 Paris Cedex 07. Phone : + 33 (0)1 40 49 48 14. Open daily except monday from 9.30 to 18.00 ; thursday from 9.30 to 21.45. Rates : 7,50 € (full), 5,50 € (reducted).

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, dimanche 22 novembre 2009

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