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James Ensor: The Master of Masks and Madness

James Ensor was not your typical painter. He was a rebel, an innovator, and a visionary. He created some of the most original and expressive works of art in history, blending symbolism and expressionism in a way that no one had done before. He was fascinated by masks, carnival, and the macabre, and he used them to explore the dark side of humanity and society. Ensor was also a precursor to the expressionist movement, influencing many artists who came after him.

This year – the 75th anniversary of his death – is a good time to look back at his life and legacy, and look forward at some of the events that are taking place in Belgium to honor him and his art.

From Ostend to Brussels: The early years of a genius

James Ensor was born on April 13, 1860, in Ostend, a seaside town in Belgium. He was the son of a Belgian mother and an English father, who together ran a souvenir shop that sold masks and curiosities. The young James grew up surrounded by these objects, which would later inspire his art.

A talent for drawing and painting was apparent from an early age. He enrolled at the local drawing school set up a studio in his attic at home, and in 1887 enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. There, he learned the techniques and styles of the classical masters, such as Peter Paul Rubens and James Bosch. He also met other young artists who shared his interest in new and unconventional forms of art. Two of these were the printmaker Félicien Rops and the writer Eugène Demolder, both of whom encouraged Ensor to develop his innovative view of art. 

Breaking the rules: The birth of a unique style

Ensor soon became dissatisfied with the academic and conservative art scene in Brussels. He wanted to express his own vision and imagination, and he experimented with different materials, colors, and forms. He developed a distinctive style that combined realism and distortion, using bright and contrasting colors, exaggerated and twisted shapes, and a sense of movement and dynamism.

A young James Ensor (self-portrait)
A young James Ensor (self-portrait)

He also became obsessed with masks and grotesque figures, which he used to create bizarre and fantastical scenes. He often depicted himself wearing a mask, or as a masked character, such as Christ, Napoleon, or a skeleton. He used masks as a metaphor for the hypocrisy and corruption of society, as well as a way to reveal his own inner feelings and conflicts.

Shocking the world: The masterpieces of a rebel

Ensor’s paintings were not well received by the public or the critics. They were considered too strange, too violent, too offensive, and too incomprehensible. He was rejected by many exhibitions and galleries, and he faced ridicule and hostility from his peers. He was also accused of being insane, immoral, and blasphemous. However, he did not give up on his artistic vision, and he continued to produce some of the most remarkable and influential works of art in history. Here are some of his most famous paintings:

The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (1888)

A monumental and chaotic painting that depicts a carnival procession in Brussels, with Christ on a donkey in the center, surrounded by a crowd of masked and grotesque figures, including politicians, soldiers, clergymen, and artists. The painting is a satire of Belgian society and politics of the time, as well as a critique of the role of religion and art in the modern world. The painting was so controversial that it was not exhibited until 1929, and it is now considered one of the masterpieces of modern art.

The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 by James Ensor
The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 by James Ensor

The Lamp Boy (1880)

A realistic and touching portrait of a young boy holding a lamp, which was one of Ensor’s first paintings to be acquired by a museum. The painting shows Ensor’s skill in capturing the light and the mood of the scene, as well as his empathy for the humble and the poor.

The Lamp Boy by James Ensor
The Lamp Boy by James Ensor

The Tribulations of Saint Anthony (1887)

A nightmarish and visionary painting that shows the saint being tormented by a horde of demons, monsters, and skeletons. The painting is a display of Ensor’s vivid imagination and his fascination with the grotesque and the macabre. The painting was praised by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as the boldest work of its time.

The Tribulations of Saint Anthony by James Ensor
The Tribulations of Saint Anthony by James Ensor

The Intrigue (1890)

A mysterious and sinister painting that shows a group of masked figures in a dark room, with a skeleton peeking from behind a curtain. The painting is a commentary on the deception and the evil of society, as well as a reflection of Ensor’s own fears and anxieties.

The Intrigue by James Ensor
The Intrigue by James Ensor

Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man (1891)

A gruesome and absurd painting that shows two skeletons fighting over the corpse of a hanged man, while a third skeleton watches from a window. The painting seems to be a mockery of the futility and the cruelty of life and death, as well as a symbol of Ensor’s defiance and humor.

Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man by James Ensor
Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man by James Ensor

The Baths at Ostend (1890)

A lively and colorful painting that at first glance shows a normal and delightful bathing scene on the crowded Ostend beach. But take a closer look and it becomes clear that Ensor is not at all charmed by these bathers. In simple and cheerful shapes and colors, he paints a picture of banality – all spied on by a pair of voyeurs. What do they spy? All sorts of vulgar behavior: nudity, fornicating, stripping, flaunting, obesity … a mass of human grotesqueness.

The Baths at Ostend by James Ensor
The Baths at Ostend by James Ensor

Paving the way for Expressionism: The influence of a visionary

James Ensor is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of expressionism, a movement that emerged in the early 20th century and that emphasized the emotional and psychological aspects of art, rather than the realistic and rational ones. Ensor’s use of distorted forms, vivid colors, and intense expressions had a profound impact on many expressionist artists, who admired his originality and his courage. His works were also appreciated by other avant-garde movements, such as surrealism and dadaism, and he influenced artists such as Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, George Grosz, Alfred Kubin, and Felix Nussbaum.

From rejection to recognition: The later years of a legend

Despite the initial criticism and rejection that he faced, Ensor never stopped painting and creating. He also experimented with other media, such as printmaking, drawing, and music. He lived a relatively quiet and secluded life in Ostend, where he had his studio and his collection of masks and curiosities.

In the early 20th century, he started to gain more recognition and appreciation, both in Belgium and abroad. He was honored with several exhibitions and awards, and he was made a baron by King Albert I of Belgium in 1929, and a member of the Legion of Honor by France in 1933. He was also admired by many younger artists, who visited him and sought his advice.

James Ensor by Henry de Groux
An older James Ensor, painted in 1907 by Henry de Groux

He continued to paint until his death on November 19, 1949, at the age of 89. He left behind a rich and diverse body of work, that is now considered one of the most important and influential in the history of modern art.

Celebrating the man behind the masks: The 2024 commemorations

2024 is the 75th anniversary of James Ensor’s death; a perfect time to celebrate his life and legacy. Several events and exhibitions are taking place in Belgium, especially in Ostend and Antwerp, where he spent most of his life and where he created most of his works.

In Ostend, a city festival will show the true face of ‘the man behind the masks’, with guided tours, concerts, workshops, and performances. The festival will also feature the opening of the new James Ensor House – a museum that will showcase his studio, his personal belongings, and his art.

In Antwerp, the city with the largest Ensor collection in the world, four awe-inspiring exhibitions will take place in September 2024, each focusing on a different aspect of Ensor’s art and personality. The exhibitions will be held at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), the Photo Museum Antwerp, the Plantin-Moretus Museum, and the Fashion Museum of Antwerp (MoMu).

These events and exhibitions are a unique opportunity to discover or rediscover the genius and the madness of James Ensor, the master of masks and madness. If this article has sparked an interest in James Ensor, then these events and exhibitions are not to be missed!

Addendum: James Ensor in music

I am grateful to Toby who blogs at Travels with Toby for her comment below which brought my attention to the song “Meet James Ensor” from 1994 by the American group They Might Be Giants, which you can listen to below:

In my art history class, while in college, we were bored and all of a sudden [Ensor’s] works came up and we were surprised at how exciting it was. He was an expressionist, like other 20th century expressionist painters, who was ahead of his time and was very eccentric. The line “Dig him up and shake his hand” is actually very specific – a parallel idea to a lot of his paintings which involve resurrections, skeletons and puppets being animated. It’s not an accident that the language of the song reflects his work. He did a painting – titled something like “Self Portrait in 1970”. It’s a skeleton, wearing his clothes. He became a phenomenon right before the turn of the century. With the song, I’m trying to encapsulate the issues of his life – an eccentric guy who became celebrated and was soon left behind as his ideas were taken into the culture and other people became expressionists.

John Flansburgh (songwriter)

If anyone knows of other references to James Ensor in music or literature, please mention them in a comment below or drop me a line as I would be keen to add them to this post.

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27 thoughts on “James Ensor: The Master of Masks and Madness”

  1. Denzil, thanks for bringing James Ensor’s work to our attention. Quite impressive body of work! I especially liked “The Intrigue.” It’s an excellent commentary, still very much relevant, on “the deception and the evil of society.”

    1. Thanks Rosaliene, yes there’s a lot to say about masks, how we wear them, when we take them down, and the different forms that a mask can take. Even in a blog comment I can put on a mask.

  2. Oh my gosh! There was a Jeopardy question today about a Belgian painter and both hubby and I immediately thought of James Ensor because of the They Might Be Giants song (“Belgium’s famous painter”). But the answer was another famous painter from Belgium…..whose name escapes me just now. I just popped over here from your nature blog and saw this post and had to check it out, so cool! I need to read it in its entirety but I also want to say that The Intrigue is at my local art museum (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which I now learn is the second version) and we always stop to look at it when we’re there. Nice blog Denzil! I’ll have to come back. Cheers!

    1. Hi Toby and thanks for your comment. I was not aware of this song (or the band) so thanks for the addition to my knowledge, which I have added above to the post. And thanks for following me here too! Good to stay in touch.

      1. You’re welcome, glad I could help! They’re a fun group and it rounds out your post nicely with some music. Oh, the Jeopardy answer was Magritte which I remembered by reading the comments here. ?

  3. Hello Denzel, do you know Arno (Also from Ostend) was a great admirer of Ensor ? He made an album along with other artists about Ensor. It is entitled Masqué.

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