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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Another view of Ensor

Artists can be criticised. They need not always be praised. The distinguished art critic Robert Hughes did not like Ensor. In Ensor: Much Possessed by Death, published Time Magazine: Monday, Mar. 07, 1977, he explained why:

"There was once, in the West, a tradition of demonic art. It no longer exists because—The Exorcist and other light satanic amusements notwithstanding—nobody much believes in devils any more. Perhaps the last significant European painter who did believe in them, and was able to project his anxieties onto them and make the demonic a chief theme of his work, died in 1949.

He was James Ensor, and in the paintings he made in the last two decades of the 19th century, the characters and props of the demonic tradition take their final curtain call: the persecuted Christ, the scrawny monsters, the whole malevolent apparatus of hooks and claws, skeletons and distended orifices, grimacing masks and threatening crowds that had served European artists so well up to the death of Goya. The Guggenheim Museum's current retrospective of Ensor, more than 110 pieces, tries to present him as a modern artist, which he was not. Ensor's was a solo act at the end of a tradition.

Ensor's career was not just provincial; it was provinciality itself. He was born in Ostend, the Belgian seaport and watering place, in 1860. His parents ran a little junk shop (it also sold masks for the yearly Ostend Carnival), and Ensor's childhood was obsessed by "our dark and frightening attic, full of horrible spiders, curios, seashells, plants and animals from distant seas, beautiful chinaware, rust and blood-colored effects, red and white coral, monkeys, turtles, dried mermaids and stuffed Chinamen."

Between the immense stolidity of its bourgeois life and the thinness of its cultural milieu, Ostend in the late 19th century must have been one of the most stuffy places in Europe, but Ensor could hardly bear to leave it. In his whole life he made just one trip to Paris, one to Holland, and possibly a four-day excursion to London; that was all.

Light, considered as a sign of divine immanence, fascinated Ensor. It gives a special tension to his skeleton pieces, mask paintings and the street scenes of his best years, from about 1885 to 1900: glitter and death, dark subjects and brisk high tones.

The brutally emphatic imagery was created with a disconcerting sweetness of touch. Skeleton Painter in His Atelier, 1896, typifies this: the surface is almost as pretty as a Bonnard (though not nearly so well painted), and the very fact that Ensor was not trying to use illusionist tricks to convince viewers of the skeleton's reality lends his image a paradoxical strength—that of the throwaway line.

One of the most affecting paintings in this show, for the same reason, comes late in Ensor's career, 1915: a portrait of his mother's corpse. At first glance she is mere background, an almost monochrome rumpling of the sheets behind a still life of medicine bottles; to the extent that paint can catch the sour, carbolic odor of a virtuous deathbed, it is done here.

But when trying to impart lessons, what a poseur Ensor was!

Every Christ he painted is trivialized by his narcissistic equation of the suffering God and the rejected artist.

It is customary, at least in Belgium, to see Ensor as a man of the people. But Ensor's waterfront lumpenproletariat look just as subhuman as his judges and police officers. As a political artist, he was both strident and unfocused. The Good Judges, 1891, is a curdled parody of Daumier, without the master's swift economy of feeling. It is impossible to tell what Ensor thought about politics, except that he was in favor of free education and universal suffrage, and against the riot squad — not the most developed of ideologies.

He disliked the Belgian monarchy. ...

He did not, however, go quite so far as to refuse the Order of Leopold in 1903, or the barony that the next King of Belgium offered him in 1929.

At root, he hated authority because it would not let him in, and loved it when it did. Success assuaged him but slackened the mainspring of his art. After the turn of the century, with a few exceptions, James Ensor painted nothing of consequence for 50 years. His self-pity was increasingly soothed, and that is perhaps why his art did not develop — and why he so eagerly grabbed the honors pressed on him by the grateful nation he had once excoriated."