Tucked into the current Getty exhibition of James Ensor’s works is his small etching from 1887 entitled “The Pisser,” depicting a gentleman in a top hat seen from the back doing, well, his business against an outside wall. Not a particularly unusual sight in 19th century France, but what makes this print noteworthy is the scrawled graffiti on the wall, “Ensor est un Fou” (“Ensor is a Madman”).
The first rooms of the exhibit display works a viewer would expect of a fin de siècle painter. There are pieces from his days as a student at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (which he described as an “establishment for the near-blind”). There are works befitting the grand art salons of the epoch. And there are works reflecting almost all the cutting-edge movements of the time: impressionism, pointillism, and more. The works are not those of a madman. Obviously there’s great restlessness in Ensor, that is, he dabbled with remarkable proficiency into various styles and techniques, never exploring any in depth other than imparting hints of expressionism to most. Stylistic consistency meant little to Ensor; he used whatever he needed to realize his visual aims.
Yet halfway through the exhibition rooms the viewer is confronted out of the blue with his totally original stylistic about-face that presents us with scatological, eccentric images and themes which are still capable of shocking a jaded 21st century audience. At this point Ensor as “un fou” seems plausible, yet the viewer remains ambivalent since the paintings are brilliantly executed and clever. What is certain is that they’re products from an odd character displaying ample contradictions, obsessions, anxieties, insecurities, irascibility, depression, vituperation, and sensitivity. He was a man who, except for two years in Brussels, spent his entire life in the Belgian town of Ostend where he often spent long periods in utter silence. Ulrike Becks-Malorny characterized him best as “…the quintessential lone wolf.”
Now skeletons, grotesquely sardonic masks, images of massed crowds (which Ensor actually feared) appear everywhere. Visually Ensor’s polarities and contradictions become the norm: comedy/tragedy; humor/horror; familiar/shocking; real/fiction; orderly/disorderly; discipline/anarchy; allegory/parody. The origin of Ensor’s phantasmagorical and confrontational presentations becomes clear when one realizes that he was a fan of Edgar Allen Poe’s writings and was also influenced by anarchist philosopher Emile Littre. In addition, he loved the extravagant masked Belgian carnivals, and had the opportunity of observing these masks close up as his mother sold them in her gift shop. Without a doubt the artist exaggerates and stylizes images greatly, but madness it’s not. And what is the viewer to make, particularly since Ensor considered himself an atheist, of the religiously themed works depicting Christ intermingled within a sea of depravity in his other works? It turns out that his Christ-centered images were simply another of his metaphorical proxies designed to represent himself within an image.
Towards the end of the exhibit, a new shock confronts the viewer, especially when face-to-face with his 1889 “The Fall of the Rebellious Angels,” a painting that could hang next to works by Hans Hartung, Jackson Pollock, or Joan Mitchell. I had always imagined James Ensor as an early 20th century artist only to discover from this show that his significant body of art was produced from 1885 to 1895. James Ensor was beyond being an avant-garde painter and rests in a category by himself. This amazing collection of Ensor’s works, including the huge iconic 1888 painting, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels ” (now a Getty possession), will stay up only until September 7, and pity the person who misses viewing these gems.