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Entries in james ensor (1)


In Which Light Is the Queen of Our Senses

Piles of Bones


This past August was my first month living in New York City. At around age twelve I can recall considering the MoMA to be a mecca of sorts upon my first real visit. It contained some of my most favorite paintings in the world, and I could have happily lived there and dwelled amongst those works until the end of time if it had been up to me then.

One of the earliest story books I can remember having was Linnea in Monet’s Garden. Yes, a story book about visiting the home of the great impressionist himself. Do you know that they even have a cookbook about Monet’s home? Well, they do, and the meals are paired up and photographed in various pastel rooms of his estate.

I still dream of going there of course, standing on that japanese bridge, looking out at the same reflections Monet himself was so captivated by. Other artists evoke daydreams for me as well. Caillebotte makes me want to drift lazily in the wooden row boats in Central Park. Turner made me swear I’d see sundown in Venice one day (and oh did I ever), and Whistler still makes me want to expatriate.

I recall a very impassioned lecture in which I was first introduced to Ensor in a Political Art course. “Look at the masks," my professor exclaimed, "That’s you!" Was it me? I felt aghast. The faces looked dead and terrifying; they laughed, committed violent acts, wore eery childish grins, and mocked you to your face. These masks expressed a total lack of reason, an idiocy, a violence, a lack of cause or sense.

Ensor had grown to despise the drunken debauchery of his home country, and their notorious masquerade carnivals. His famous masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels” was a brutal critique of the bourgeois people. “He loved people and empathized with them, but also criticized them passionately" my professor explained. "He hated them for their dim interest, laziness, their overall lack of control."

Our professor had forced us to read Marx and Nietzsche in the first half of the semester, and upon the midterm, made the only students to get A’s stand up in front of the class and promise to assist the ones who did not (I got an A, and changed my major the next semester to art history). I looked forward to lectures like most people look forward to their weekends. That is what Ensor reminds me of: a sort of burning passion.

“To some extent, the future of painting was determined in that attic” - Paul Haesaerts

To see so much of Ensor’s work in one place alone is an exhilarating experience, greeted by earlier works, consisting mostly of murky portraits and gorgeous greying landscapes of the artist’s native home, Belgium. It even smells beautiful in there (this also happened to me in the Uffizi). The exhibit is scented like you might imagine the streets of Olsted would, like waffle vendors and the faint smoke from a pipe and dessert wines. I am not sure how this happened, but I approached “The Rainbow, After the Storm” (1880) and immediately felt weak in the knees.

My Grandparents had in Olsted.. a shop selling seashells, lace, rare stuffed fish, old books, prints, jams, china, an inextricable jumble of assorted objects constantly being knocked over by a number of cats, deafening parrots, and a monkey. My childhood was filled with marvelous dreams an frequent visits to my grandmother’s shop, with it’s iridescent glow from the reflections of the shells, sumptuous lace, strange stuffed animals and terrible savage weapons that terrified me. This exceptional milieu without doubt developed my artistic faculties and my grandmother was a great inspiration. - James Ensor

Ensor, deemed “the painter of masks” by the poet Emile Verhaeren, is known for participating in the Tachist style of painting. The term tachism is derived from the french “tacher” which means to mark or stain. It should be noted that after leaving the Academie Royale Des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (he enrolled in 1877), Ensor returned home to refocus his studies, setting up a permanent studio in attic above his family’s shop.

In 1883 he co-founded the artist group Les XX (also referred to as Les Vingt), a group which advocated the freedom of personal expression over any certain style of painting. This is only a small insight as to why it is difficult to confine Ensor’s work within the brackets of any one particular “ism”, but this assertion of ‘staining’ by way of the palette knife is spot on for many of the works within the exhibit. “The Rainbow, After the Storm” is a work in which the horizon is barely discernible, and the sky appears a fresco inspired symphony of paint.

In the distance a pale arch of color is born against the clouds, not quite vibrant, but arresting all the same. This and other works depicting Olsted and Brussels suggest the artist's quiet love for his country and all of its natural beauty. Ensor's painting confronts me with vast skies, cascading light, and a sense of atmosphere which feels almost ethereal. I have always favored Ensor for the versatility of his palettes, but I didn't expect to be seduced so by his handling of natural light. His subjects had such life inside of them and yet the paint itself was so visible. There is no way to compare him with any other painter.

I don’t have children, but light is my daughter, light one and indivisible, light bread of the painter, light soft part of the loaf of the painter, light queen of our senses, light, light, illuminate us! Animate us, show us the new routes leading to joy and bliss. - James Ensor

I move along and find my feeling of ethereality is not misguided. There are many works which are religiously inspired in this show, notably “Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise” (1887), “The Tribulations of Saint Anthony” (1887), and “Christ Calming the Storm” (1891). Adam and Eve are expelled by a radiant angel three times their size who appears to be producing the most spectacular light. They turn in shame, two indistinguishable human figures rendered in the same tones as the earth they themselves have sprung forth from.

"The Tribulations of Saint Anthony" is a painting literally out of this world, so much so that it scarcely suggests any perspective and instead presents us with the absolute torment endured by the poor saint. Are you one of those people who is interested in how monsters and demons have been portrayed in art throughout the history of time (especially those great medieval ones)? This painting is for you. It is feverish, delirious, fantastic, certainly unlike anything I’ve come into contact with before. It only hints at what Ensor would infuse into his later masterpiece “Christ's Entry into Brussels” and the works following.

Yes, our actions are pictorial, our inventions are enormous, our thoughts are tragicomical, our temptations are burlesque, our desires are born of the flatlands, our paradises are made of dough and condensed milk, and our endearments are made of butter. - James Ensor

Ensor in some way empathized with Christ’s suffering and torment, and feeling so used this theme of tribulations repeatedly throughout his career. I find the line between empathy and parody to be a blurred one, and yet Ensor portrays himself as Christ numerous times. Is this arrogance or sincerity?

Such portraits were suggested as metaphors for his suffering due to critics' poor opinion of his work, and in the same stroke they were also allegories for his disgust at the inhumane tendencies of the public. In "Calvary" (1886) Ensor portrays himself as Christ on the cross being pierced by a spear bearing the name of a popular art critic of the time.

He has also portrayed himself as a skeleton, a herring being eaten by skeletons, an insect, a head on a platter, a "pisser", and as himself being assaulted by demons. Ensor has an ability to make you laugh, feel solemn, feel horrified, laugh again, and then feel complete awe. As if made uncomfortable by what they saw, patrons of the MoMA's Ensor exhibit default to laughter to thwart their discomfort. There are a few that make me giggle, “Self Portrait with a Flowered Hat” (1883/88) in particular, but other works are far more grave in their assertions.


Vision is altered by observation. The first type of vision, the common kind, is the simple line - dry and with no attempt at color. The second is where a keener eye makes out the value and delicacy of the different shades. This type is already less comprehensible to the common man. The final kind is where the artist discerns the subtleties and manifold effects of the light, its planes and gravitational fields. These progressive investigations after primitive vision, undermining the line and rendering it subordinate. Such vision will not be widely understood. It requires long observation and attentive study. The common man will merely see disorder, choas and impropriety. This is how art has evolved from the Gothic line through the color and movement of the Renaissance to arrive at modern light. - James Ensor

Moving through the rooms the theme of death becomes far more prevalent. An equally stunning and chilling work, “Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries” (1885/88) is one of the first in the progression of the show to depict Ensor’s trademark skull.

It is yet another in a series of works that he revisited in the late 1880s when his work was about to undergo a great transformation. The painting was once a portrait of a sitter, now changed into a skeleton who seems to be situated beneath a waterfall of colors. This work at once ignites a sense of unease and interest. The colors seem to celebrate life, and yet the tilted skull whispers that one day we’ll be just as he is, a pile of bones.

This same sense of being drawn in persists once the theme of masks begins to dominate the works. I feel haunted, mocked, accused, estranged, and fearful all at the hands of these paintings. Is he expressing the misery, the anguish, the nature of turmoil that has befallen his beloved country and town? Is this his own personal tribulation? In 1888's "Mask Mocking Death" the masks themselves appear to have no sense as to fear death, they are so disillusioned, so far from human. White paint dominates the canvas and a chalky pinkish background offers no sense of space or depth, but only allows the masks to crowd further into the frame. With hollow eyes the skull stares out at its viewer undaunted by the madness, delivering an unwavering truth - life extinguishes.

I want to survive. The transiency of the pictorial material frightens me. Poor painting! An art exposed to the incompetence of restorers and the imperfections of reproduction. Yes, I desire to stir future generations for a long time to come. - James Ensor

Up on that sixth floor exhibition, I felt overcome by the paint, which is second only to being overcome by sound. Visiting the depths of every lightwave and spectrum, I have been shown life, death, chaos, madness, catharsis, calm, nightmares, and still each vision was alive with delicate rendering. Such an atmosphere is like going to church in a sense, so much divinity and damnation in one place.

Amanda McCleod is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.

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