James Ensor, Self-Portrait With Masks (1899), oil on canvas; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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Visiting James Ensor, MoMA’s retrospective of paintings, drawings and prints by the 19th-century Belgian artist, is a discomfiting experience, not least because of the grotesque imagery favored by the long-heralded, if hardly renowned, “painter of masks.”
The grim reaper, scythe in hand, soars above the rabble, ecstatic and victorious. Skeletons warm themselves by the fire, play music and tussle over a gnarled piece of herring. Doctors tug an absurd length of intestine from a patient’s distended belly. Mummers huddle conspiratorially. Snot, vomit, spit and shit figure prominently in several pictures.
But the MoMA exhibition nags, really, for a different reason. Notwithstanding the work’s overtly bilious nature, the artist himself turns out to be a curiously tepid character. A painter and printmaker of remarkable, if often purposefully variable, gifts, Ensor’s art is rarely profound and only mildly acerbic. He’s something of a phony.
Possessed of steely cunning and a sardonic temper, Ensor was too willful an eccentric to yield completely to visionary excess and too contrary a moralist to make indictments of clergy, king and noblemen sting. Compare Ensor to contemporaries like Redon and Munch, and he can’t help but seem fussy and narrow, peevish and arch. What we’re left with is a sophisticated crank capable, but only intermittently, of haunting brilliance.
Early Ensor is a murky, rather hide-bound affair—just the thing you’d expect from a painter who abhorred Impressionism and revered the “defunct schools” of Rembrandt, Bosch and Brueghel. Soupy interiors featuring family and friends took a hallucinatory turn with “The Scandalized Masks” (1883). By the time Ensor added a ridiculously ornate hat to an early and earnest self-portrait five years later, his taste for otherworldly excess, the sly and the monstrous, had come to the fore. The monumental pencil drawings pre-figuring “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” (1889) (Ensor’s signature canvas, not included at MoMA) are densely rendered spectacles of swirling lines, scruffy surfaces and diaphanous light. As essays in the profane, they’re oddly removed, but Ensor’s delicate traceries are a wonder to behold.
Ensor lived well into the 20th century (he died in 1949) and came to be recognized as a Belgian national treasure—testament both to the benefits of longevity, but also, one feels, to the work’s overriding toothlessness. A self-made provincial, Ensor couldn’t maintain the scope or scarifying intensity of his best work dating around 1890.
It’s probably just as well. As the 19th century closed, Ensor’s art increasingly became a forum for easy narcissism, mordant in-jokes and settling petty squabbles. In the last painting we see before exiting the exhibition, Ensor, surrounded by a deluge of masks, stares at us with something approaching noblesse oblige. This thin strain of condescension points to a man who preferred, in the end, to contain, rather than unleash, the fantastic. The loss of integrity is palpable: Why give credence to nightmares the dreamer doesn’t believe in?
© 2009 Mario Naves
Originally published in the August 25, 2009 edition of City Arts.