Everyone knows about the magnetism of Paris and New York in the annals of modern art, but Belgian painters such as Van de Velde, Toorop, Van Rysselberghe, Evenepoel, Khnopff, Rops, Magritte, Delvaux and Permeke are remarkably significant. The galleries of satellite cities such as Brussels (now only two and a quarter hours away from London by Eurostar) always repay study. On the other hand, actual works of groundbreaking art were often executed far away from large urban centres. They were produced in sleepier and more outlandish locations. Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Tahiti will conjure up the names of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
The Belgian port of Ostend is currently conjuring up the unique and outstanding figure of James Ensor (1860–1949). His father was a cultured, multilingual Englishman who failed in business, married beneath himself and took to the bottle — but at least he appreciated his son’s art, unlike other members of the Ensor family, apparently.
Ensor first excelled as an innovative Realist — an early work brilliantly portrays his sister tucking into a plate of oysters — but he paved the way for Expressionism, Surrealism and much else. Influenced by Turner, he manipulated paint with great freedom as he responded with ultra-sensitivity to local effects of light. He also had the graphic talent of a satirical cartoonist or caricaturist. Hogarth, Gillray and Daumier were mentors. By the late 1880s Ensor was one of the most daring painters of his day. ‘His brush rushes across the canvas and whirls with an insouciance equalled only by the audacity of his imagination.’ These are the words of Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ensor’s enormous, rebellious masterpiece ‘Christ Entering Brussels in 1889’, never exhibited in public until 1929, is now in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. An amazing full-size carpet design for this work, made later by Ensor on paper, is in the current show.
‘Ostend, sweet, colourful little flower, heaven on sea’ was how Ensor described the place which inspired him and where he lived and worked for most of his life. The title of the show under review, Ensor and the Avant-gardes by the Sea, sounds a little more serious in Flemish or French for some reason. Plans for a catalogue in English were abandoned, but even if you are as poor a linguist as this reviewer, it is well worth buying the book (in Flemish or French) which accompanies the show for its stimulating illustrations. There are 35 Ensors and 207 works by a whole host of other artists. I wonder how many English art-lovers are familiar with the work of the redoubtable Willy Finch, or Pericles Pantazis, Willy Schlobach, Leon Spilliaert (a one-man show of whose work is in Brussels at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, until 4 February 2007) or William Degouve de Nuncques. Shame on us. You can find Belgian counterparts for English painters. For example, before his Pointillist period, Theo van Rysselberghe (1862–1926) did for naked ladies on the rocks what H.S. Tuke (1858–1929) did for naked boys swimming in Cornwall.
Ten years ago, when a chance storm swept the Ostend–Ramsgate ferry back into port, I first visited Ensor’s house in Ostend — now a museum. Until then, I had mistakenly thought that Ensor’s weird, masked faces came primarily from somewhere inside his own psyche, that they were manifestations of some type of artistically beneficial madness — schizophrenia, perhaps, or paranoia. It soon became clear that Ensor lived above a family-owned shop which sold actual masks along with other exotic items such as beautiful and rare shells. These Ensor masks were real, not imaginary. When I recently visited the Ensor Museum again, I realised something else. Turning left out of his house is a very long, narrowish street with a market in it. The street began to fill up with relentlessly advancing human faces. Truth almost became stranger than depiction because they reminded me of the none-too-beautiful, indeed sometimes terrifyingly ugly, visages in ‘Christ Entering Brussels in 1889’. Ensor, who liked being an enemy of everything, including modern art, painted this huge picture as a sort of riposte to Seurat’s ‘La Grande Jatte’. Where Seurat is cool, rational, classical and poetic, Ensor is passionate, anarchic, romantic and symbolic.
Ensor et les avant-gardes à la mer is an ambitious exhibition whose main virtue is also a defect. It clearly shows what an important artist Ensor was and also, almost equally importantly, it shows the rich diversity of talent of Belgian artists and artists working on the Belgian coast. Its defect, though, is that it tries to do too much. There are three themes, with three different wall colourings to match, so that the visitor may know where he is at any given point. The themes are ‘Reality and Light’, ‘Dream and Emotion’ and ‘Colour and Expression’. The trouble is that it is hard to think of any artist since the dawn of time who doesn’t fit into one of these categories. Cave painting at Lascaux and elsewhere could probably be fitted into all three. Even Tracey Emin could be fitted into at least one. A sophisticated French female journalist I talked to, who had already seen the show, even assumed that the whole arrangement was some kind of devious ‘marketing’ device.
This cynical observation turned out to be absolutely off the mark. Willy Van den Bussche, the show’s dynamic curator, was able to justify the inclusion of every single work as we walked round together. A Courbet and a Monet are in the ‘Reality and Light’ section. (Attempts to borrow two Turners and a Whistler were unsuccessful.) A Gauguin, a Toulouse-Lautrec and a Dalì are in the ‘Dream and Emotion’ section. A Kandinsky and a Nolde are in the ‘Colour and Expression’ section. Both artists paid visits to Ensor in Ostend. A distorted Picasso face gets into this section, too. The show concludes humorously with a work by Jean Tinguely called ‘Avant Garde’. Alas, intellectual justification does not always guarantee the visual compatibility I was looking for — perhaps wrongly. There are some wonderfully enjoyable paintings here. The total effect is stimulating but chaotic. ‘Wonderfully mad’ is the phrase that comes to mind.
You could argue that ‘wonderfully mad’ reflects something about Ensor himself. His work rather went to pieces after about 1900, but in a somewhat Alice in Wonderland moment, considering that Ensor was a classic outsider, King Albert I made him a baron in 1929.