James Ensor

The Belgian master of the macabre lands at MoMA.

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  • At the Conservatory

  • The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse

  • The Oyster Eater

  • Self-Portrait with Masks (Photo credit: Menard Art Museum, Komaki City)

  • The Strange Masks

  • Skeletons Trying to Warm Themselves (Photo by Robert LaPrelle, courtesy Kimbell...

  • Masks Mocking Death (Photo by Thomas Griesel, Department of Imaging Services,...

  • Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring

  • The Skeleton Painter

  • The Intrigue

At the Conservatory

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels

Like a doyenne dressing too young for her age, the Museum of Modern Art sometimes tries too hard to look kicky and with-it, mounting affairs like the recent Martin Kippenberger and Pipilotti Rist extravaganzas that lose their hold on the imagination once you’ve exited the building. But when MoMA settles into its self-anointed role as historical arbiter of all things, well, modern, few institutions put on a better show. Such is case with this retrospective of the Belgian painter and printmaker James Ensor (1860--1949), an exhibit bound to leave a lasting impression, especially on young painters. This is true even though the culminating canvas of Ensor’s career—his monumental Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (actually painted in 1888)—isn’t here.

The official reason is that the painting’s owner, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, deemed the piece far too fragile to travel (it last appeared in New York as part of the Guggenheim’s Ensor survey in 1976), but given the petty politics of museum loans, who really knows. Nevertheless, what is on view offers a number of surprises, including how startlingly contemporary Ensor seems compared with peers like Georges Seurat, and how much of a pure painter he really was, notwithstanding his often macabre and fantastical subject matter. Indeed, the multivalence of his oeuvre, which also includes conventional landscapes, still lifes and figures, as well as political caricatures, is quite astounding, as was his way with a brush.

Although Ensor was associated with avant-garde circles in Antwerp and Brussels, and was familiar with the scenes in London and Paris (he visited both places), he operated mostly alone, detached from colleagues who he felt were unappreciative of his work. And while his life was long, his most creative period was relatively short, lasting only from 1880 to the mid-1890s. These years produced his signature themes: the carnival masks and skulls expressing the futility and irony of existence; the biblical figures in contemporary settings; the wry self-portraits in which he pictured himself as Jesus, or in a ridiculously plumed hat, or with an x-rayed countenance, or as a desiccated corpse in the distant future. This approach set him apart from the rest of late-19th-century art, even from other precursors of Surrealism and Expressionism like the French Symbolist Odilon Redon.

Ensor may have juxtaposed the natural with the supernatural, but he wasn’t describing dreams or the unconscious; rather, he seemed to explore the possibilities of different realities existing side by side. The most obvious binary in this respect was the one between life and death, or rather, between life and the afterlife, whether that meant the spiritual notions of Heaven or Hell, or the empirical fact of moldering bones. In many ways, Ensor seems like a medieval thinker, but his understanding of the slippery essence of reality and the performative aspects of identity makes his work appear awfully familiar to millennial eyes.

Not coincidentally, Ensor was born and spent the bulk of his career in the seaside resort of Ostend, which, like New Orleans, is famous for an annual masquerade. Ensor’s family owned a small emporium that catered to tourists, selling oddities, seashells, and of course, carnival masks of the sort that populate his compositions. In fact, these often seem imported directly from the store: Unlike Redon’s seamless reveries, the elements in paintings like Skeletons Trying to Warm Themselves (1889) are always clearly depicted as props. In this parable of Ensor’s sense of his own artistic isolation, the eponymous subjects huddling around a studio stove (inscribed in French with NO FIRE. WILL THERE BE ANY TOMORROW?) are little more than skulls plunked on top of heaps of fabric. This only makes the image seem all the more uncanny, however, much as the presence of a Colman’s Mustard poster does in a watercolored intaglio study for Christ’s Entry Into Brussels.

Ensor was obsessed with mortality, especially his own, which is funny when you consider that he was 89 when he finally expired. He wasn’t lugubrious about it; in fact, you might say he treated death as a cosmic joke, or as a necessary first step toward some sort of ultimate understanding (which, given his evident sense of humor, might have simply meant knowing in the end that everything was bullshit). He was also fascinated by light, not only in its observable effects in nature, but also by its role in representing the divine—which meant, in Ensor’s mind, justice for the poor and downtrodden. That he represented himself as a savior suggests he possessed a messiah complex, but he could have just as easily been sending himself up. The variety of Ensor’s work can make its meaning seem elusive, until you consider the possibility that he viewed his art as the key to his salvation, the vessel for everlasting life. In this sense, he proved to be quite correct.

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Museum of Modern Art, through Sept 21

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