“James Ensor: An Intimate Portrait” is a welcome, if somewhat misconceived exhibition of works by fin de siècle Belgium’s most beloved oddball. Save the appealingly modest scale of the works included in the show, the portrait of Ensor presented at Gladstone Gallery in New York is familiar, not intimate.
By familiar, I mean first that the show and its accompanying catalogue deliver few surprises. This is not a criticism. Curator Sabine Taevernier has hung a representative sampling of the artist’s work, nearly thirty pictures in various mediums and genres, “mainly from the period 1888–1896, eight years during which the artist created the quintessence of his work.” Also on view are four grotesque painted masks from Ensor’s studio, of the kind a tourist might have purchased at his family’s Ostend curio shop, and images of which populate some of his best-known paintings. Anyone previously unfamiliar with Ensor will leave the gallery with a textbook understanding of his peculiar aesthetic sensibility and range—here, he paints a little still life of fruit in nacreous oil tints, and there, he etches a gothic, Poe-inspired fantasia.
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This curatorial efficiency is a real achievement. However, “An Intimate Portrait” flirts with a different form of familiarity, one too easily misconstrued as intimacy: the tabloid exposé. The painting that serves as publicity image and catalogue cover, Portrait of the Artist – “The Big Head” (1879), a glimpse of Ensor emerging from the shadows in three-quarter view, seems to have been chosen for its suggestion of a rare private exposure of an enigmatic figure: the man behind the mask. But as a painting, this work is unremarkable, as are the two other conventional self-portraits on display. All three precede Ensor’s exemplary period of activity. None captures the quintessence of his art. Don’t take my word for it. Here is Ensor himself, writing in 1894: “I tried many times to do my own portrait, but I never succeeded to capture my likeness.” The artist preferred to send critics photographs taken by someone else. In his own art, as in the exhibited etching My Skeletonized Portrait (1889), Ensor tended to visualize himself in the image of another. In that particular piece, the artist peels back a layer of the self to reveal bone, not depth.
How strange, then, for an exhibition to promise a close encounter with an artist through images that either do not capture him or were never meant to invite such acquaintance. In life, Ensor appears to have been a louche guy. In his art, he was a master of unsolicitous forms—smirks, grimaces, evasions. By 1888, Ensor was well on his way to becoming the so-called “painter of masks,” a moniker assigned him by his sharpest critic, Émile Verhaeren. The title stuck. Ensor made sure of it.
Earlier in the 1880s, the artist caused a stir in the Brussels art world first with a series of atmospheric tableaux of bourgeois interiors, and then as the resident weirdo of the independent art group Les XX (The Twenty). By decade’s end, he took to reproducing, with what he called “violent effects,” the lurid, polychrome forms of knickknacks peddled by his mother and grandmother in their Ostend gift shop, objects that had transfixed him since boyhood. “These masks please me because they put off the public, which had received me so poorly,” he reflected. Consequently, Ensor’s art developed, even as his aesthetic preoccupations remained immature, rooted in a child-like sense of monstrosity and an impish desire to shock.
The results of his eccentricity are uneven, which is part of their charm. In certain pictures on display, such as the scabrous etching Peste dessous, Peste dessus, Peste partout (1904), Ensor opts for easy punchlines with limited visual interest. Well-heeled weekenders sit pretty alongside indigents and a steaming turd. Their privileged pose is, of course, morally rotten, which is why stench lines—which could be mistaken for the swirling breeze of a plein air painting, if not for the title’s reference to pollution—emanate from all persons in Ensor’s picture, irrespective of their place in the class hierarchy. In other works, by contrast, such as the black chalk drawing The Skeleton in the Mirror (1890), the artist achieves the extraordinary: a skeleton appears within an ornately framed mirror positioned parallel to the picture plane, where we might otherwise expect to see the artist’s face. Masks surround the mirror, facing off with the viewer, except for two with beak-like noses that jut into the frame in profile, evoking the beholder’s vantage point, if only approximately. This is a space for spectating, not inhabiting.
In this and other drawings on view, Ensor reflects on a feature common to all faces: as observers of the world, we stand behind the faces we present—especially once we recognize how the bridge of the nose impinges on our field of vision—but we are also always standing before pictures of ourselves and others, forcing us to reconcile an inside view with an external one. This perspectival predicament, staged within The Skeleton in the Mirror, connects Ensor’s work with what art historian Andrei Pop calls the “doubling problem,” or the difficulty of making the private contents of consciousness publicly, pictorially available. Ensor addressed the problem in his own singular manner: with a grimace and a sneer. He invites us to look at his masks, not to wear them.
Verhaeren captured Ensor’s legacy best when he wrote, “Anyone who remains so durably young will never age. He carries within himself the power of incessant resurrection.” Sure enough, the Painter of Masks has since become one of art history’s iconic lost boys, consigned to a never-never land of his own making. I am glad to remain familiar, but not intimate, with James Ensor. I doubt that he would mind.