James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890. Oil on canvas, 90 x 149 cm. Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016.
The Royal Academy of Arts is presenting the first major exhibition of James Ensor’s (1860-1949) work to be held in the UK in twenty years. One of Belgium’s most prominent modernist artists, Ensor was widely considered to be an important precursor of Expressionism. Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans brings together some 70 paintings, drawings and prints by the artist, the vast majority of which have been drawn from major Belgian collections. The exhibition has been curated by the renowned contemporary painter and one of Belgium’s foremost artists, Luc Tuymans, who brings a fresh perspective to the selection and presentation of Ensor’s work.
A highly skilled draughtsman and painter, Ensor had a deep appreciation of the poetic possibilities of light and a lifelong devotion to the inherent creativity of the mind. His eclectic visual language drew upon a wealth of subjects from the traditional to the fantastic, producing an extraordinary body of work that spanned poetic evocations of the Belgian countryside and coastline, to disturbing visions of imagined worlds. Ensor’s works have continued to baffle, intrigue and defy categorisation in equal measure, providing one of the most singular and distinctive bodies of work to be produced at the turn of the twentieth century.
Born in 1860 to an English father and a Belgian mother, Ensor was raised in the coastal town of Ostend, where his family ran a curio shop which he described as “an inextricable jumble of assorted objects constantly being knocked over by a number of cats, deafening parrots, and a monkey…”. It was this somewhat eccentric environment, as well as Ostend’s annual carnival and the archaeological excavations at the time, from which Ensor drew much of his later imagery such as masks, theatrical costumes and skulls. Referred to as “the painter of masks” by poet Émile Verhaeren in 1908, Ensor wrote: “The mask means to me: freshness of colour, extravagant decorations, wild generous gestures, strident expressions, exquisite turbulence.”
As a student at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Ensor was an outsider who rebelled against traditional teachings and was drawn towards the avant-garde salons of artists and intellectuals at the time, an environment in which he flourished. Heartened by these encounters, Ensor returned to Ostend in 1880 where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1883 he co-founded the progressive artist group Les Vingt, yet even this once stridently avant-garde group proved too safe for Ensor who became increasingly isolated from the external world and remained committed, throughout a long and belatedly successful career, to his individual style.
Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans includes a selection of significant paintings, drawings and prints by the artist which span the breadth of his entire career, some of which have never been exhibited in the UK. The exhibition features three of Ensor’s most important works: The Intrigue, 1890 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), which depicts a newly-wed couple encircled by sinister masked figures, The Skate, 1892 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels), a powerful, enigmatic still life and Self-portrait with Flowered Hat, 1883 (Mu.Zee, Ostend), a humorous reference to Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of Susanna Lunden (National Gallery, London) of 1622.
Ensor’s works are accompanied by a selection of Gilles de Binche carnival masks, two works on paper by Belgian Symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert and Guillaume Bijl’s 2002 black and white film James Ensor in Ostend. The exhibition also includes Gilles de Binche, 2004, by Luc Tuymans, whose ongoing concern with light in his practice is similar to that of Ensor. Tuymans’ curation of the exhibition engages with the sense of mystery, anonymity and mischievousness associated with masks.