James Ensor (1860-1949) was born in Belgium to a drunkard father of English extraction and a mother whose family business was a shop selling souvenirs and curios, specialising in richly decorated masks for the Ostend carnival. He was later to inherit and live above this shop, which was kept arranged for business, but which he never opened. A photograph shows him at his easel on top of which is a human skull.
A writer, musician-composer and painter, Ensor displayed in much of his work the spirit of the theatre, imbued with a disturbingly authentic mania. The works are often angrily satirical, funny, dissenting disparagements. The best known are his imaginative anarchies, populated with fantastically masked characters including Pierrots, skulls, grimacing grotesques, exotic parrots and strange hats. This show includes representative work from all periods, but excludes his most famous work, The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (1888-9), an auto-fantasy depicting the artist as Christ.
Ensor's paintings cover visionary religious subjects, landscapes, bourgeois interiors, still lifes, and political and personal caricature. His imagery is both sacred and profane, fantastical and naturalistic, historical and contemporary. Even in his most mundane works there are little pockets of redeeming insanity: in Brussels Town Hall (1883), for example, a crazily disjunctive flat area of red, yellow and blue, which is parallel with the picture surface, depicts posters on a wall. Through all periods there is a continuity of enthusiasm in the depiction of light. Considering the macabre nature of so much of Ensor's imagery, it is notable that he used so much white paint, where we might expect black.
Ensor's most significant paintings were made in a brief period before the age of about 30, and during this time his art was heavily criticised. This caused the artist much pain and he suffered a sense of persecution. His identification with Christ is consistent with this mania, but his Christ is more a historical person with a socialised message than a Divinity.
As happens, the militantly irreverent young artist, once contemptuous of institutionalism, played it safe once he became successful. Ensor was made a baron and his works consequently became more compromised and depleted. The early etching Doctrinal Nourishment (1889) shows King Leopold II, accompanied by representatives of the Belgian state and church, shitting onto the people of Belgium who are depicted receiving the turds into their open mouths with appreciative gratitude. After his ennoblement Ensor actively sought to buy back and destroy these prints.
In terms of the standards of his peers, Ensor was lacking in technical facility, but it is partly his relative innocence of skill that gives the work its vigour and contemporary interest. This is not to say that he was an unskilled artist. His is a deliberate indifference to precious paint handling that goes beyond a lack of technique. This is, of course, also a facet of much contemporary practice, whether posed or natural. Ensor also employs some fabulously enjoyable disjunctions, revenges and mockeries, using the devices of caricature, carnival and religious allegory. Masks Watching a Negro Boatman (1878-90) is a great painting: an academic study to which the artist returned after many years and disrupted with a wilful anarchy of masks, parrot and tortoise. Old Woman with Masks (Theatre of Masks or Bouquet d'artifice) (1889) is a commissioned portrait of a sitter, who is surrounded with deranged masks and insane grotesques. When it was refused by the client, the artist revengefully introduced spots and whiskers to the woman's face.
Turner and the English caricaturists Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank all influenced Ensor (as we are told in an understandably slightly over-pleased way by this show), and his work is full of pissings, shittings, pukings and fucking dogs. In combination with his confused but convinced spirituality, the resulting effect is like that of Jesus turning up in the middle of a Goon show.
Ensor's work is in a lineage that includes Breugel and Bosch, and his work often pre-empts Modern ideas such as working from photographs, which he did from at least 1889. There are also prefigurings of certain ideas of Picasso and Picabia, and others such as Jack Yeats and Stanley Spencer through to Clemente, Basquiat and the drawings of Spike Milligan. The work shows qualities reminiscent of the manic dissociations and raw lines of the mentally ill or innocently untutored, or the appropriations of such art.
Independently of his ennoblement and the usual compromises of success, it is possible to understand Ensor's decline as stemming from another source: the worst thing that could befall a satirist, namely that he became compassionately amiable. In this sense, it is perhaps better to seek to understand his failures as relative rather than absolute. That is, he may be disadvantaged as much by our contemporary valuing of gamey, macabre despondencies and sarcasms in art as by his own limitations.