James Ensor at the RA

James Ensor (1860-1949) was a Belgian Modernist artist who remained a maverick in the art world for the entirety of his life. Since we both knew so little about his life and work, the current exhibition running at the Royal Academy until the 29th of January, proved a must-see.


The exhibition itself, entitled “Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans”, takes on an interesting perspective, addressing the legacy and impact of the artist through the eyes of Luc Tuymans, an internationally renowned contemporary artist of the same nationality.

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Modernism, or ‘the revolt of the suppressed realities’, as defined by Mexican writer Octavio Paz, a development from the impact of Surrealism, most characteristically encapsulated issues concerning dreams and The Unconscious. Artists’ preoccupation with such bold themes resulted in a revolutionary transformation in twentieth-century painting. However, whilst this artistic movement developed contemporaneously to Ensor’s own oeuvre, he himself can be seen to work parallel to its ideas, remaining somewhat unorthodox in his style.


‘Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries’, c.1888-90

Born in Ostend in 1860, Ensor grew up in an increasingly developing and commercialising environment; the city had morphed into a fashionable seaside resort, home of visually stimulating carnivals and balls such as the Bal du Rat mort, the masquerade Dead Rat Ball. Much of the surroundings and images of his childhood, including masks, would reappear again and again in his work. In fact, Symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren entitled Ensor as ‘the painter of masks’. His seeming obsession with the human skeleton, a symbol of death, was also an image conjured from his youth; as Ostend grew mass graves of skeletons that were centuries old were disinterred. A personal favourite of ours, entitled ‘Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries’, c. 1888-90, demonstrates his macabre inclusion of the skeleton into a contemporary context, studying and surrounded by fashionable oriental art and materials.


‘The Bad Doctors’, 1892, captures several of Ensor’s signature motifs

Following his frustrating experiences at both the Académie des Beaux-Arts d’Ostende and the Académie royale des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, Ensor co-founded Les Vingt (Les XX), which fostered his individuality as an artist. However, the dynamic of the group began to transition from uniqueness to acquiring a more defined identity, which propagated a volatile relationship. Ensor, however, stayed true to his principles, and the exhibition pays homage to this. For example, his fascination with printing dominates a whole room of the exhibition space, as the artist had such a predilection for works on paper, exclaiming, ‘Poor painting! An art exposed to the incompetence of restorers and the imperfections of reproductions […] I want to survive – I think of hard copperplates, imperishable ink, easy reproduction, I therefore prefer the etching as a means of expression.’


‘Christ Tormented By Demons’, 1895, print

A truly inspiring, and thought-provoking artist, James Ensor’s legacy is felt in the accompanying works of Luc Tuymans, whilst his art historical importance in the development of painting is explored thoroughly at this exhibition, demonstrating the growth of his artistic maturity from room to room.


This Ensor-inspired photography, in which Annie’s eyes are covered in ripped black paper, pays tribute to the imagery of the mask in his work. In ‘The Intrigue’ of 1890, the central figure’s eyes are similarly dark, as if behind a mask; thus the only means of extracting his emotions or thoughts are limited to the lower half of his face. We tried to create this same sense of limitation, but instead focusing on the varied shapes of the mouth, and the overall effect this achieves. We thought the result proved rather haunting, and thereby somewhat in-keeping with Ensor’s macabre subject matters.


Buy tickets to the exhibition here. We would definitely recommend it!

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