Intrigue: James Ensor By Luc Tuymans
Time Out says
James Ensor wasn’t a great artist. An odd, macabre, creepy and totally weird artist, sure, but not a great one. The Belgian painter lived almost his entire life in the seaside town of Ostend, above his mother’s curiosity shop – an isolated, barren existence, sequestered away from the art world, making thousands of strange drawings and paintings. The great contemporary Belgian artist Luc Tuymans has curated this show of Ensor’s works in the hope of making him as well known here as he is on the Continent.
Ensor’s early years in a Brussels art school ended with him fleeing the harshness of bourgeois society for the safety of home. The show starts in the dark, damp living rooms of Ostend but then explodes into twisted life. His subjects become masks, skulls, skeletons and vengeful gods. They represent leering bourgeois snobs, haughty art critics, the establishment that he wants to kick against. He casts himself as a Christ figure, or a smoked fish being fought over by skeletons. Yeah, Ensor had issues.
He comes across as an angry, bitter painter: resentful of society and his ostracisation. But maybe being able to paint without financial pressure is what allowed him to create such nihilistic, morbid art. It’s all captured not with blacks and dark reds, but with bright pinks, swathes of white and shimmering yellows – it’s totally unsettling. ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ is a brilliant mess, a canvas dripping with sloshed-on swirling reds and angry faces. ‘The Wind’ shows gusts and ducks flying out of a giant’s arse. God is painted as a whirling pink and yellow storm in ‘Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise’.
The central room of etchings and drawings is the weirdest of the lot, with insect/human hybrids, shagging skeletons, screaming demons and haunted furniture.
But the show, like Ensor’s art, is a bit incoherent. Tuymans has included one of his own paintings and two works by Leon Spilliaert, another Ostend artist. It’s hard to see what they bring to the exhibition other than making it clear that Belgium produces dark, depressing art. Same with the inclusion of Belgian carnival headdresses. There’s just a bit too much going on, and you wish that they’d just concentrated a bit more.
So don’t come here for brilliant painting: you won’t find it. Come here instead to be immersed in a ghoulish world of anger and paranoia and to be enthralled by the art of isolation and cold bleak winters.