Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans
JAMES Ensor was raised in Ostend where his family ran a curio shop. Apart from brief periods of study he never escaped the seaside town or perhaps even the shop, which he described as “a jumble of assorted objects constantly being knocked over by a number of cats, deafening parrots, and a monkey”.
Look at some of the 70 or so paintings, drawings and prints by Ensor (1860-1949) on show at the Royal Academy of Arts and see if you agree with the view that they “baffle, intrigue, and defy categorisation in equal measure”.
The first major show of the Belgian modernist’s art in the UK for 20 years, it’s curated by his fellow countryman Luc Tuymans.
It borrows its title from one of Ensor’s most important oil paintings, The Intrigue from 1890, with a couple, perhaps newly wed, surrounded by an oddly-masked and menacing carnival audience. Such disconcerting notes can be found across a wide variety of Ensor’s art and he would persist with carnival and mask themes.
The unexpected is everywhere. There are formal self-portraits and perhaps the best of these has him wearing an incongruous flowered hat to outdo Rubens. But that is not enough, for we have The Skeleton Painter, My Portrait as a Skeleton, The Artist Surrounded by Evil Spirits, and even an etching My Portrait in 1960. Yes that is the correct date because, in 1888, he depicted this future as his bones sitting up, apparently still in shoes, with a weird spider in the foreground.
And so it went on, with a heady mixture that included precise oils, from a bourgeois salon view to Ostend rooftops, Chinoiseries still-lifes, and even a cathedral etching. Yet more typical are the flights of fancy given away, in part, by some of the titles: The Haunted Furniture, Peculiar Insects, The Dangerous Cooks, The Bad Doctors, and The Pisser. Apparently Ensor didn’t fit in well at the Brussels royal academy and was back in his home town by 1880.
In a series of etchings The Deadly Sins, we see everything from vomiting to mayhem and the grim reaper. He makes religiosity fun, too, and just like Stanley Spencer, who had Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, Ensor had his own take with The Entry of Christ into Brussels. But Ensor featured not only a crowd sporting banners –“Salut Jesus Roi de Bruxelles” and “Les Charcutiers de Jerusalem” – but also a background advertisement for Colmans Mustard.
He also did what Leonardo did before and Daphne Todd would do after: produce graphic pictures of their dead mothers.
Image: James Ensor, The Skeleton Painter, 1896, oil on panel, 37.3 x 45.3cm, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, inv 3112
• Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, until January 29. www.royalacademy.org.uk