Magazine article The Spectator

A Bit of a Mess

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bit of a Mess

Article excerpt

An exhibition, ideally, should be the strongest possible display of an artist's work. That simple dictum, once put to me by a painter friend, seems obvious. But for various reasons - it doesn't always turn out like that. Sadly, the James Ensor exhibition, Theatre of Masks, at the Barbican is a demonstration of what can go wrong when the emphasis falls not on the strongest work, but far too often on the weakest.

Ensor (1860-1949) was a unique and fascinating talent, and his career proceeded in an accordingly unconventional fashion. Broadly speaking, he started off as a sombre realist. In those early years his most memorable pictures were claustrophobic bourgeois interiors, over-furnished rooms in which his female relations sit or lie and a miasma of ennui fills the air. At this stage, you might say, Ensor was a more heavyhanded Vuillard, plus angst.

Then, in his middle twenties, Ensor's work began to change. Carnival masks and skeletons started to invade, often in a strangely literal fashion -- because he was in the habit of reworking earlier, more conventional canvases to introduce bizarre additions. (Masks were part of the stock of the Ensor family knick-knack shop - the carnival at Ostend, where they lived, being a major local event.) From being a realist, he had become a variety of proto-Surrealist - a Surrealist who was at the same time a savagely scatological satirist of the world around him; an antic, manic, isolated figure.

Then, apparently in despair at the lack of recognition he suffered, he laid aside his brushes for a year. When he took them up again in 1895, much of the tension and energy had seeped from his work. And after 1900, as he gradually won that recognition, virtually all the excitement had gone. He continued to work away tranquilly and fruitlessly until he was almost 90, dying a Belgian baron and national hero.

This extraordinary pattern of development is effectively obliterated by the Barbican show, in which one finds work from the 1930s hung side by side with pieces from the 1880s. Only the alert and informed visitor, therefore, will be able to understand what was really going on. The hanging at the Barbican is not chronological, but vaguely thematic -- except that it sort of sets off with early work, and ends up with an entire room of boring late stuff. So the hanging isn't completely anything, apart from a mess.

That's one problem. Another is that for some reason the exhibition is overburdened - lumbered might be a better word - with far too much of the post-1900 work, and far too many second-rate bits of Ensor altogether. There are correspondingly few of his truly striking pieces. In particular, the magnificent `Entry of Christ into Brussels', 1889, from the Getty Museum is missing, without which any Ensor exhibition will look a little lame. Also, of the important early realist interiors there are only two. And of the key dead head and mask paintings - the heart of Ensor's achievement -- there are very few firstclass specimens.

The absences are more excusable than the presences. It is difficult to arrange loans of major pictures (though the Ensor exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris seven years ago was a far fuller and more satisfactory affair). But if it was impossible to get most of the important pictures, it would have been better to spread out the rest more widely, or have a smaller show, rather than pad it out with dross.

The catalogue introduction argues, weakly, that late Ensor isn't as bad as is generally thought, or not quite so bad. …

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