The Belgian painter James Ensor is a case. Most artists we remember cultivated some sort of contrariness. They jostled prevailing conventions and dislodged expectations. (Caravaggio’s picture of a conventional renaissance subject, Cupid, makes the pudgy, bruised figure look like a dead baby.) While contrariness matters in a good artist’s work, it’s not usually the motor that powers it. Ensor’s career was powered by contrariness of different kinds. We remember him mostly for pictures made in the late 1880s and 1890s of garish, masked figures, or creatures that are masks, which confront us in a way that announces some unhappy judgment — against ourselves, against themselves — with cruel glee.
Ensor was born in 1860 in the seaside resort town of Ostend, where vacationers swam, gambled, fine-dined, took the air, and shopped. One of the shops, owned by his parents and eventually by him, sold seashells, chinoiserie, lace, and comic-grotesque Carnival masks. Except for an 1877–1880 stint at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, Ensor spent his life in Ostend devoted to a singular pursuit: “I will tell to all the beautiful legend of the I, the universal I, the unique I, the potbellied I, and the great subject To Be: I am, we are, you are, they are!” That prickly little self-portrait applies to the Ensor who came into himself as an artist in the 1880s. Those years are the axis of an exhibition at the Getty Center that situates him in the art of his time, in his home place, and in his own cranky temperament. Friends and relatives spoke of his courtesy and gift for friendship, but the personality animating the pictures is sardonic, quarrelsome, and perversely sermonizing.
At the Royal Academy Ensor was taught classical values of proportion, perspective, tone, and the allegiance to a generalized classical ideal — objectivity, the true, the beautiful. The technical things he learned served him well, but the classical model repelled him. He never tired of denouncing “the sober and moderate approval of the academy.” His values early on derived from Impressionism: to work from life, not from an ideal, and to catch life, whenever possible, as we see it being lived. He was precocious. At age 16 he’d already made a beach scene depicting a wheeled bathing hut. The brave little vehicle has a great silence and diligence, though behind it lie scrambled shadows, restless seas, and tumbling clouds.
After school in Brussels, Ensor came home to Ostend and established himself as a maker of richly textured plein-air scenes, interiors, and still lifes. The interiors are mostly stifling, sour enclosures, except for a very large picture titled The Oyster Eater, which has a flashy, dynamic colorism: a woman at a richly appointed table is eating a lusciously plump oyster. (Some critics hated the picture because it treated a trivial bourgeois anecdote as if it were a magisterial subject, which of course it was and is.) The room is a splashy pleasure garden: books bound in red, a brilliant lemon, pink and blue carnations, glasses and jars filled with liquors that seem astir in their own peachy and pomegranate colors.
Ensor was hard on the surfaces of these early pictures. He scraped, dragged, knifed, and pinched pigment. (He called the palette knife the “unthinking instrument of the manual laborer.”) The Lady on the Breakwater, from 1880, is the most startling thing in the exhibition. Its patched, shingled textures and statuesque slabby-ness push the medium to the threshold of abstraction: the figure, carrying a parasol that looks like a hovering storm cloud, is a brusque construction of planks of dark grays and greens, reductive and elemental. Ensor’s muscular manner of handling paint is already in place, but there’s no menace or meanness or fury in the figure itself. That soon changed.
Drawings are a painter’s equivalent of a writer’s notebooks. It’s a place to test ideas and confide feeling, to converse (and contend) with imposing predecessors and the history of the art. Ensor’s sketchbooks are filled with imitations of Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Courbet, but while making his way as an in-the-cultural-stream, Manet-style Impressionist, he was confiding in the drawings a different pictorial language. In the early 1880s grotesques begin to appear, as well as Japanese imagery (just making its way in the West) of fierce Kabuki costuming and masks. By the mid-1880s he’s copying Daumier’s viciously comic caricatures and creating his own caustic types — the fop, the vulgar swell, the high-society dame. And one page is covered with spectral Carnival masks.
In his paintings around this time, Ensor’s work gets ruder. He’ll continue to paint portraits, seascapes, and still lifes, but now masks and multitudes rule. The Getty exhibition includes his most famous pictures. In Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, a festive throng packs the streets; in the middle distance sits an irrelevant, barely distinguishable Christ the King. The masked procession, led by a drum-major bishop and steeled by ranks of soldiers, looks about to break up from its own energies. The partiers aren’t worshipping Christ, they’re celebrating license, masquerade, and incipient chaos. A banner above the proscenium arch through which the parade passes, “Vive La Sociale,” announces (and mocks) workers’ and socialist movements, and a placard acidly announces “Fanfares Doctrinaires/Toujours Réussi,” “Dogmatic Fanfares/Always Succeed.” Ensor knew what he intended. In a letter he spoke of Christ’s Entry’s “racket of distinct characters and intense colors” and of the picture’s “aggression and movement.” We’re far from the earlier cozy interiors. The tone of this new public world is contrarian, derisive, ferocious, leering.
Masks model the real while importing the strange, and the strangeness fixes the identity. The natural face is the grand betrayer or faker of feeling; the mask doesn’t give anything away because it doesn’t change, and its fixity drains it of any suggestion of inner life. Its inexpressiveness can be a form of cruelty. In another great, hilariously jarring mask picture, The Intrigue from 1890, a good bourgeois couple taking their evening constitutional are intruded upon by clamorous beseechers who include a plump woman holding a baby (or doll baby: a babykin), a leering character with a pruning-saw jaw, and other masked presences expressing sniffy censure and googly-eyed delectation. The picture is a barbed nest of gossip, mean inquisitiveness, and mendacious declaration. The gelid greens and tarnished golds twist the masks’ faux gaiety into a weirdly vivacious travesty of companionship.