The powerful oeuvre of Belgian Expressionist James Ensor (1860-1949) is a complete masquerade: a crazy procession of grotesque figures, masked faces, daubed female visages, skeletons and giant carnival puppets, all painted in a mixture of garish and pastel colours. Ensor’s paintings go from one extreme to another. Having initially won acclaim for his sophisticated, true-to-life Realist depictions of interiors and seaside views, the artist then changed direction completely and became absorbed in the world of his imagination.
Today, Ensor is renowned for his versatile and sensitive use of colour, the freedom of his painting technique, his unbridled imagination, and his mocking view of human nature. Born and brought up in Ostend, he was the son of a middle-class family with a Belgian mother and English father. This spring, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag is holding a major retrospective in honour of James Ensor: a penetrating insight into a visionary universe.
Throughout his career, Ensor attracted attention. By abandoning conventional themes and exploring new subjects, he showed himself a true pioneer and a great artistic innovator. The modernism of his work led to difficulties in its reception and even made it hard to exhibit. To solve this problem, Ensor joined forces with other like-minded Belgian artists and in 1884 established an association called Les XX (‘The Twenty’) to organise their own group exhibitions. By soon after the First World War, however, Ensor was an accepted part of the modern art canon and today he is regarded as a leading Expressionist artist, ranking in European terms alongside Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Oskar Kokoschka. Like René Magritte and Paul Delvaux, he is a top international name in the field of classic modern Belgian art.
Daring colour contrasts
Ensor was first and foremost an exceptional colourist, employing daring colour contrasts and tonalities. He used light in his paintings as an emotional and expressive element of the image. In his grotesque paintings, he used the mask as an Expressionist means to reveal the true nature of humanity: both farcical and vicious. Ensor also possessed extraordinary graphic talents, manifested in the drawings and etchings also on show in this exhibition. There is a fascinating contrast between the thickly daubed, colour-based paintings and the meticulously detailed works on paper, with their scenes of densely massed crowds.
Ensor in the Netherlands
The exhibition will include a special focus on Ensor’s links with the Netherlands. The artist visited the country early in his career and drew inspiration from the Dutch Old Master paintings he encountered here. At that time, he was frequently compared to Rembrandt and paintings like The Oyster-Eater (1882) display similarities with Dutch seventeenth-century still lifes. Ensor’s work found ready appreciation in the Netherlands and was even exhibited and collected here. He was also close to Jan Toorop at a time when both artists were achieving crucial advances in their work.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a lavishly illustrated Dutch-language book containing contributions from Saskia de Bodt, Herwig Todts and Doede Hardeman, published by Ludion and priced at € 24.90 (softcover) and € 34.90 (hardcover).
The exhibition is being held in close collaboration with the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp and with the assistance of the Spaarnestad Photo Collection (part of the National Archives of the Netherlands). The Gemeentemuseum wishes to thank the Flemish Government for its support.