Magazine article The Spectator

Flights of Fancy

Magazine article The Spectator

Flights of Fancy

Article excerpt


James Ensor

(Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, till 13 February)

However globalised we become, there remains a connection between art and place. Thus, looking at the work of James Ensor, as we did a couple of years ago at a Barbican exhibition, we were tempted to think about his relation to Turner (he was, after all, half English). But, while contemplating the massive retrospective currently at the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, one is more inclined to see the Flemishness of Ensor.

He alternates, in fact, the two poles of Flemish art which are an insistent, earthy physicality and wild, carnival fantasy. The first tendency is represented, for example, by Jordaens and Brouwer, the second by Bosch and Magritte. Ensor - and this was the principal oddity of his career -- moved from the former to the latter. He began with a heavy, sombre realism, laid down in thick, dark paint in such works as `Russian Music' from 1881, or `Bourgeois Salon' from the same year. The effect is roughly as if the world of Vuillard had been painted by Courbet.

From these determinedly factual works, he moved into a mode of crazy, sinister fantasy, sometimes in the same painting. Thus he originally painted a life study of a male black model while he was still at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts - that institution, as he later called it, for the near-blind. Ten years later, around 1890, he added a tortoise and an eruption of tittering masked faces on the right. There are other paintings in which the two worlds of Ensor meet like this.

In general, however, there was a break. In the later 1880s, Ensor's palette lightens, even when he is still painting a straightforward still life, and his fantasy begins to fly. On the whole, my spirits lightened too when I reached these rooms. The realist Ensor is splendid in its way. The still lifes, 'Cabbage' and 'Mullet' from 1880, for example, have massive, chunky presence, the foodstuffs gleaming richly in shadowy rooms. There are a number -- indeed, a whole room - of fine large drawings of people, like a more atmospheric version of early Van Gogh (a slightly older contemporary of Ensor).

It is possible, also, to see the emotional pressure building up within the solid, superficially uneventful interiors of the early 1880s such as `Bourgeois Salon'. Partly, perhaps, that is because there is always a tendency for the intensely real to topple over into the surreal, but also because the tensions really were building up in the Ensor household in Ostend, which was both stuffy and eccentric. `Bourgeois Salon' depicts Ensor's mother and Aunt Mimi placidly sewing (he claimed that they spent most of the nine months of low season asleep).

But it must also have been a frustrated and unhappy menage above the family curio shop (which sold carnival masks among other things). Ensor's father was a failure in business who took to drink - a superior man, in the view of his son, who preferred to be drunk than to be as other people. Neither Ensor nor his sister was successful in contracting lasting relationships. She ran off with a Chinese commercial traveller, who deserted her when she became pregnant. He finally acquired a part-time mistress, but lived his whole life in the family home, with his female relations. …

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