In the paintings of James Ensor, life is dour and murky but death is a riot of colour and expressive brush-strokes. In one of the first pieces in the Royal Academy’s exhibition two women sit taking afternoon tea (Afternoon in Ostend, 1881) in an oppressively brown room, as if the bourgeois scene is so interminably dull Ensor wishes it would be entirely gobbled up by shadow.
Contrast this to his more obviously macabre images; Christ in Agony sees the saviour dressed in a tutu nailed to a vivid pink cross; The Skeleton Painter shows an artist with a skull for a head luxuriating in a jauntily coloured studio; Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise shows the pair fleeing from light and colour towards the familiar dull browns and greens of the corporeal world.
It’s a wonderful change of pace from the Sackler Wing’s previous tenant: David Hockney, with his relatively straightforward 82-Portraits and 1 Still Life. Unlike Hockney, who astutely teases out the personalities of his sitters, Ensor is at his best when painting semi-imagined worlds of masked grotesques, often based on the mardi gras, which seem like a reaction against the lazy coastal town of Ostend in which he lived out his days.
Something of a hermit and aloof from the art establishment of the time, the Belgian artist – himself seen as a precursor to expressionism – is nevertheless influenced by the changing style of the late 19th century, his works becoming more free-flowing and impressionistic as the 1800s bled into the 1900s. But there is also a singular modernist vision behind his strongest pieces, married to a sharp, nihilistic view of the consumerist trappings of his age.
Alongside Ensor’s paintings – among them The Intrigue, his most famous work and surely an influence on ‘90s black comedy The League of Gentlemen – are a collection of dark etchings, both in tone and execution, and a wonderful screen print entitled The Artist Surrounded by Evil Spirits, demonstrating Ensor’s versatility.
The exhibition is curated by contemporary Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, who throws in one of his own pieces – Gilles de Binche, 2004 – and some works by Leon Spilliaert, none of which add very much, suggesting too few of Ensor’s works were available for the exhibition.
Ensor is relatively unknown on these shores, and while this exhibition shows what a mercurial talent he was, it’s not the thorough retrospective he deserves.
First published in City A.M.