James Ensor at the Museum of Modern Art
June 28–September 21, 2009
11 West 53rd Street
New York City, 212 708 9400
James Ensor is the master of the mask—literally. In Self-Portrait with Masks (1899), the artist paints himself in the middle of a carnival throng. Only the heads are visible in the perspective, the bodies blocked by an agglomeration of weird and scary faces. Near the center of the canvas is the artist himself, looking a little apprehensive, but very human in comparison to the ghouls, demons, monsters and skulls hemming him in on all sides. The painting begs questions about an artist who never managed to fit in. No wonder his anti-heroic stance inspired the alternative rock band, They Might Be Giants, to cut their 1994 single, “Meet James Ensor.” The song title isn’t ironic. Although Ensor is well known in Belgium—the old 100 Franc bank note even sported his portrait —his fame does not always spread beyond Northern Europe.
The current MOMA show of drawings, engravings and small to medium format paintings does a decent job of educating the American public on Ensor’s work, but leaves the viewer mystified by an artistic output that is, by turns, charming, comic, disturbing and repulsive. It is as if Ensor tried artistic styles the way he tried on the masks sold in the family’s curiosity shop. Ensor is, in fact, a shape-shifter whose work seems to defy categorization and still arouses controversy over 120 years after his first show. Critics trashed him then and some continue to do so now: Artnet declares the MOMA exhibition “a wreck of a show,” complaining of his shifts in style. Lack of consistency has always been one of the biggest problems in assessing Ensor’s work.
Are still lifes Ensor’s strongest suit? His drawings? Is he really more of an Impressionist, Symbolist, Mannerist, Expressionist, or Surrealist? Or is he a political satirist? Does the often disturbing imagery indicate mental pathology, or is he just winking at Goya? The scatological works, such as the satiric etching Doctrinaire Nourishment (1889), with its community leaders defecating into the mouths of admirers, can still arouse repulsion, while The Oyster Eater(1882), with its sensuous depiction of a sea-food feast, complete with titillating lights illuminating the glassware, seafood and eyes of the sitter, suggest that twenty-two-year-old Ensor could equal Manet in masterful still-life.
If Ensor had had a solid, identifiable chronological development, it would be easier to make sense of this show, but he danced a circle in his own carnival, repainting and collaging old works, revisiting his former styles. In Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries (1885/88), he maliciously changed a delicate interior scene so that the head of the sitter is masked by a skull, though the Nabi tendency to blend figure and ground survives the transition from naturalism to… Surrealism? Perhaps the numerous self-portraits Ensor made—in The Dangerous Cooks(1896), he replaced the head of a herring (Ensor’s symbol for art) with his own self-portrait—are an attempt to locate his own artistic identity. In the more traditional My Portrait (1884), the artist, viewed realistically in torso, points at himself, perhaps desperately.
Compared with the oeuvre, the biography seems clear. The man who exhibited with Van Gogh and Monet, who received Emil Nolde and Wassily Kandinsky, who hung out with Einstein and devoured Edgar Allen Poe, led a reclusive life almost entirely in his native Ostend, even enduring the bombings of World War II. His major works, painted in an attic studio above the family curiosity shop, were executed at least partly in house paint because he couldn’t afford oils. His family hated his art. The critics tortured him (“Ensor” was synonymous with abominable art). Even his closest artistic allies turned on him and shunned him from a collective exhibition. In a Kafkaesque moment in 1893, Ensor tried, in despair, to sell his studio and all its contents. There was no buyer. He carried on.
Death was his constant companion. The skulls, which appear early on in his work, are more than momento mori. On the beach, where over 130,000 Flemish were massacred by the Spanish in the 17th Century, skulls were as common as driftwood—Ensor kept some in his studio. While sometimes skulls symbolize his hateful critics, as in Skeletons Fighting Over A Pickled Herring (1891), at other times they take on an almost companionable air, another curiosity deposited by the sea.
In one of the more touching, funny paintings in the show, The Skate (1892), Ensor veers away from the macabre world of imaginary ghouls back to the homey gratifications of the Flemish still life. The fish slouches comfortably in the studio, looking tired, flabby and somewhat ridiculous alongside the other, nobler, sea fare—a comic onlooker in a death scene. It stares directly at the viewer, its expression baffled, uncertain as to whether it belongs in the studio or in the sea, though certainly it doesn’t belong with the other seafood—it is positioned apart, isolated from the crowd. In turning the still life into a portrait, arguably a self-portrait, Ensor is, once again, wearing a mask.