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James Ensor, press 2016
Photo © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Photography: Geleyns / Ro scan / © DACS 2016 James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891

Four things you need to know about James Ensor

A new show opens at the Royal Academy this week exploring the work James Ensor. Here's what you need to know about the morbid giant of Belgian art

By Eddy Frankel
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1. He's big in Belgium

Though he’s about as far as you can get from a household name in the UK, James Ensor (1860- 1949) is seriously big on the Continent and in the USA. Like berets and siestas, his art just never took off here. But he was a major inspiration for plenty of big twentieth-century art names like Paul Klee and George Grosz. Brilliant contemporary painter and fellow Belgian Luc Tuymans is another big fan, and has curated this show of 66 key Ensor works.

2. He was a hermit

What could push someone to make a painting as odd as ‘Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring’ (pictured)? Well, never leaving your desolate windswept Belgian town might do it. Born to a British father and a Belgian mother, Ensor spent his entire life in the seaside town of Ostend. He apparently came to England once, and spent a few years studying in Brussels, but the big city was just wasn’t for him. He lived in the family home, above their souvenir and curiosity shop, for basically his whole life, looking after his domineering mother and aunt. Isolated from the art world, cloistered away in a fusty house in a bleak seaside town above a shop filled with masks and creepy artefacts, you’d probably make some pretty weird paintings too.

James Esnor

James Ensor surrounded by his paintings, 22 June 1937. Photo © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw / © DACS 2016

3. His art is seriously creepy

Well, some of it. Ensor produced a lot of art in a lot of different styles, and not all of it’s great. He’s most celebrated for the works he produced up until the age of around 42. These used traditional Belgian carnival masks and souvenirs and curios from his mother’s shop as inspiration: the result is a bright, Technicolor world filled with skulls, leering twisted faces, grotesque people with hooked noses, living puppets and carnivalesque costumes. Creepy.

4. He hated the bourgeoisie

Studying in Brussels, Ensor figured out pretty quickly that he had no time for stuffy academics or the conservative art world. He knew he was a proper outsider, and he spent much of his career mocking the bourgeoisie, art critics and hoitytoity art snobs. They’re shown as grotesque angry mobs, or vicious repulsive figures of authority. Masks are used not to hide faces, but to reveal the ugly mocking truth of people’s characters. His life as a rebellious outcast, mad at the society that rejected him, didn’t last long. Eventually, he even became (whisper it) popular, and the king of Belgium made him a baron. Nothing says ‘up yours’ to the bourgeoisie like joining the nobility.

'Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans' runs at the Royal Academy of Art, Sat Oct 29-Jan 29 2017.

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