Intrigue, the exhibition of James Ensor (1860-1949) at London’s Royal Academy (through January 2017), does as promised by its captivating title borrowed from the homonymous seminal painting of 1890. Put together by the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, not new to important curatorial efforts, the project is neither a canonical retrospective nor an artist-curated, past/present dialogue and confounds definitions as much as Ensor did over his lifetime. There are, indeed, aspects that may suggest both the approaches, beginning with the venue, the Academy’s Sackler Wing usually devoted to prominent scholarly surveys. The roughly chronological hang and the leaflet by Adrian Locke and Anne Testar offer an insight into the stages of Ensor’s opus, from the elegiac naturalism of the late 1870s to the highly influential signature paintings of masks and skeletons. Conversely, Tuymans’s introductory wall text rings like a heartfelt homage, unfolding the significance of the artist’s oeuvre for his own practice. With his masquerades, macabre allegories of fin-de-siècle decadence, Ensor informed Tuymans’s notion of “authentic forgery”, the meditations on representation as a ghostly, Wildean mask where meaning was played with and disguised – the work he became widely recognised for in the 1990s. What however comes across from the bold, neat display, that manages to turn the Sackler Wing into a terse, luminous white cube, is the possibility to face Ensor directly, almost intimately, as if he were alive. An occasion for the viewer to mirror in his panoplies of outlandish characters that, in our ‘post-verity’ present, gain a new, unsettling eloquence. Ensor’s upside-down world becomes ours and vice versa.
Hung among the Ensor’s, Tuymans’s 2004 canvas Gilles de Binche is a clue. The Gilles are the main characters parading in the Carnival of Binche, Belgium’s worldwide renowned pre-Lenten festival. “What I did with the series of the Binches, Ensor did too,” Tuymans said in a recent interview (The Art Newspaper, October 2016), “he was asking what would happen if you were to re-enact the folkloric and all the disturbances that come with it”. The disturbance implied here is to do with the very nature of carnival as a Dionysian subversion of collective morality, beliefs and fears that Ensor, towards the 1880s, resorted to as a reconciliation of art with what he believed was its original fervour, its imaginative, moral and spiritual role. The radical move from naturalism to the esoteric imagery he is mostly celebrated for, goes back to the local traditions of his native Ostend, the Belgian coastal town famous for its carnival, where the artist grew up surrounded by the bizarre paraphernalia sold in his family’s curiosity shop. Despite constant visits to Brussels, Ostend remained his microcosmic observatory both in and out of a society in transformation, which Ensor, a fervent anarchist, came to see as a farce. Behind his masks, his grotesque creatures at the edge of civilization, are hidden the false myths and clichés accompanying the pre-war, precipitous modernization of his newborn country – the mechanization of existence in modern metropolises, the bourgeois homologation and massification, the positivist materialism and the corruption of the metaphysical. Yet, it is his restless search for authenticity and ardour in art, that fully explains the breakthrough. Saluted as an “art of cold calculation”, the 1887’s exhibition of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte in Brussels was, for the Belgian, the culmination of a long phase of cultural dissatisfaction. Since his days at Brussels’s Académie Royale, Ensor had been lamenting the formalist stalemate of a bloodless art establishment he was both at odds with and felt misunderstood by. His alignments with artistic circles had proved, and were proving frustrating (notably, his sporadic adhesion to the group of Les Vingt). He had been only partially afforded the prominence he was after within the salons. Nor had he found a fertile ground in the epigonic strands of Impressionism and the nascent Belgian Symbolism. No wonder he felt closer to the obscure mystique of a lineage traversing Bosch, Brueghel, Callot, Watteau, Goya, Daumier and much else. If anything, in fact, Ensor had developed a repulsion for ‘taste’, the expression of the very ideals he was sceptical about. Returning to his familial oddities was a necessary plea for individuality and a broader moral turn, with masks becoming the tragicomic emblem of a truer dimension; the candid manifestation of a primordial instinctually beyond mores; eccentricity against mainstream; a total vanitas.
That this threshold between authenticity and disguise, crucial in the whole of Ensor’s work, dominates the show is evident from Tuymans’s selection. Looking at the incursions into salient moments of his earlier production, one may grasp, for instance, the theme of belonging and its origins in such melancholic landscapes as Bath Hut 29-30 July 1876 of a marine set in Ostend. ‘Roots’ and the local also typify the comparison with two portraits by his younger fellow Ostender, Lèon Spillaert. This figurative, rarely seen outside Belgium, was particularly relevant for a generation of Belgian painters emerging in the mid-1980s, such as Bert De Beul and Tuymans himself. Still mainly appreciated within Symbolism but difficult to pigeonhole, his work acquires new momentum in the show, altogether remarking Ensor’s enigmatic singularity. After all, inscrutability is key in Ensor’s idiosyncratic syncretism, where local folklore and ‘high art’, history, literature and the Bible, are weirdly fused, theatrically camouflaged and humorously morphed to stage the distance between the seen and the seemed – to put it like his much admired Edgar Allan Poe. Even several of his earlier takes on genres and tropes retain a sense of impenetrable ambiguity that witnesses defiant exuberance. The rigidity of the sombre Afternoon in Ostend (1881) of an interior inhabited by two women having tea (his mother and sister), is a claustrophobic version of ‘modern life painting’, with impasto becoming as heavy as plaster to render the morbid affectation of the scene and, by extension, of the genre. The execution of the face in the well-known Self-portrait of 1883 looks like wax, almost suggesting make-up fading. This is one of the numerous self-portraits made in his career, each histrionically reframing the poses or the features of figures by such diverse sources as Rubens, Leonardo and Rembrandt. Identity and the multiplication of the self into personae are obviously paramount. Whether squashed in a crowd of sinister beings or as the skeleton-painter framed by a group of absent-minded, quixotic observers, his mutable effigy always stands for an affirmation of fierce heterodoxy, whilst the crowd around incarnates a variety of projections of his own masks and demons – personifications of roles, rules, judgements and doubts, virtually fruit of a pre-Freudian superego. In The Skate (1892), the isolation of the fish from the ensemble beside, replaces the compassionate humanity intrinsic to the motif immortalised by Chardin and, later, Soutine. On view, among the elegantly exhibited array of striking drawings, studies and prints, is also a hand-coloured etching of Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, the pivotal monumental canvas of 1888 (The Getty Museum). This is the most extreme of the kind, depicting magmatic hoards of people, personages and personalities of disparate extraction that march in a political fanfare ignoring the appearance of an Ensor-looking Messiah. By then, eccentricity became his weapon. Pieces like The Intrigue (1890), Skeletons fighting over a Pickled Herring (1891) or From Laughter to Tears (1908), that, with their disquieting absurdity, paved the way to the 20th century images of humans as puppets, mannequins or machines, are the ones in which Ensor’s identification with the medium and the subject is most truly in play. The wildness in the handling describing miasmas of anomalous characters and actions, the iridescent palette contrasting nightmarish images, the unpredictable paths taken by his compressed, horror-vacui compositions, convey ordeal with animation, finally allowing Ensor’s hallucinatory realm to emerge as a tangible, topsy-turvy reality.
Perhaps, in this confident presentation, the idea of exhibiting carnivalesque items of the types worn by the Gilles, the ostrich feather headdress in the first room and the vitrine of wax masks in the adjacent section, appears rather redundant. Beyond the evident relation to Tuymans’s painting of the subject, their presence merely tames Ensor’s vigour, resulting as an exclusively aesthetical decision made to infuse the rooms with the allure of a contemporary, ‘multi-sensorial’ installation – as conjured up by, too, the 2002 video by Guillaume Bijl, a faux period document inspired by Sacha Guitry’s films featuring Monet, Renoir and Degas. Let alone that the intention of showing a ‘contemporary Ensor’ was already successfully enhanced by the hang, the props risk to force, more worringly, a parodic, funfair reading of his engagement with the mediums. Insofar as the works aspire to the portrayal of collapsing certainties, by no means do we lose faith in painting and drawing’s ability to construct meaning and visual archetypes.
In this respect, the risk is to miss another layer embedded, if veiled, in Tuymans’s re-implication of Ensor in the present. One that he must have been aware of, when assembling this crisp installation. By re-displaying Ensor’s work, not only is Tuymans questioning the significance of his oeuvre as more than a memento, but he is also making a case for it within a recent boom in art of caricatural vernaculars, a grotesque symbolism, a cartoonish ‘imaginary world’. Visiting the show, it is the necessity for us, in this period of fanciful escapisms, to take account of Ensor’s moral concern to stay in contact with reality, that will be recognised, no matter how masked it is.
James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016
James Ensor The Skate, 1892, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan © DACS 2016
James Ensor, Selfportrait with Flowered Hat, 1883, Mu.ZEE, Oostende Photo MuZee © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016
Luc Tuymans, Gilles de Binche, 2004, Private Collection Photo Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp / © Courtesy Studio Luc Tuymans