James Ensor

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James Ensor was a painter from Belgium whose mysterious works are being displayed upstairs in the Royal Academy in the Sackler Galleries. Ensor is not generally well-known, but he is studied in art history classes literally as a bridge between the works of the Northern Renaissance Masters, Modernists and Surrealists.

At first glimpse his paintings recall the works of Vuillard — claustrophobic interiors painted in heavy but indistinct softened brush strokes. The colors are dark. The walls are patterned and windowless. There is a sense of the need to escape. Yet Ensor never escaped from the beaches of Ostend or the home of his family.

Like many artists he drew inspiration from what he saw, but he was also compelled by his discontents with the political and social constrictions of the Establishment. He was particularly antagonistic to doctors. He was consumed by images of skulls and skeletons and they are present in much of his work. He was obsessed with masks. His most well-known works illustrate in a macabre way how humans disguise themselves in order hide their real intentions and feelings and to inspire fear. These masks are alarming in an artistic and psychological sense, and we are drawn to these images as we are to road accidents. They are bizarre. They are familiar. They could be us!

His greatest work was accomplished at a very young age, in the 1890s, but he continued to work well into the 20th century, after two catastrophic world wars. He can be seen to have influenced the German Expressionists like George Grosz and Otto Dix. At the same time he was well-known to artists like Matisse as having a special emotional impact. He paints in many styles, some almost caricatures, some ethereal. The exhibit has been curated by a well-known contemporary Belgian painter, Luc Tuymans, and there is a sense that the exhibition is bit more about Tuymans than Ensor. Ensor was a considerable draftsman and his drawings, etchings and lithographs have a whiff of Bosch. He was always sticking pins, even daggers, in the bourgeoisie.

We came away intrigued if not a bit confused. He had a great deal to say but much of it was somewhat obscure. We had a great meal afterwards with the Patrons of the Royal Academy at a charming restaurant called Wild Honey, which I strongly recommend. Old world atmosphere, terrific new world food.

Kaaren Hale

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