Antwerp’s James Ensor collection on show in his hometown


Following a tour of the world’s capitals of culture, Ostend is, quite rightly, hosting the last stop on the tour of a large collection of the work of master surrealist James Ensor

No place like home

Two years ago the Mu.Zee in Ostend opened a special wing dedicated to the two most beloved artists of this seaside city: Léon Spilliaert and James Ensor. One could argue for hours about which was the most important painter, and not reach a conclusion.

Undoubtedly, though, Ensor is the most popular of the two, not only in Flanders but also abroad. Museums in New York, Berlin, Vienna and Madrid have top works by him in their collections. In fact, to see Ensor’s key work, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889”, you’d have to travel to the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

It hung in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) for a long time, on loan from a private collector. In 1987, the sale to the American museum sent a shock wave through the Flemish art world.

The feeling was that if the government had wanted to buy it, it could have; it wasn’t that expensive yet at the time. On the other hand, the sale and subsequent enhanced visibility helped to establish Ensor’s international stature.

Strongest Ensor collection in the world

The KMSKA also owns the strongest Ensor collection in the world. Because the museum is closed for a large-scale renovation, parts of its collection are being exhibited at other locations.

In recent years, its Ensor collection has been to New York, Tokyo and Copenhagen, among other cultural capitals, and it seems appropriate that, before it returns home, it will make one last stopover in Ostend, the city where Ensor was born in 1860, and where he, 89 years later, died.

The Mu.Zee’s exhibition, Dreams of Mother-of-Pearl, offers 26 of the 38 paintings in the KMSKA’s possession. It also, every three months, offers a new selection from KMSKA’s 650 Ensor drawings.

In Ensor’s work, the mask is an instrument of human nature

The name Ensor instinctively makes one think of masks. Masked figures appear on many of his best-known works. It is to the Mu.Zee’s merit that Dreams of Mother-of-Pearl partially adjusts that image.

The show, which is divided into three chapters, opens with a series of landscapes. It wasn’t Ensor’s dearest subject, and he didn’t paint many, but it’s a theme that gave him the opportunity to experiment freely.

Looking at a series of paintings from around 1890, you would think that they were painted by three, four different artists. They move between highly symbolic – in Ensor’s hands, the landscape at times turns almost fantastical – childlike, such as his view on a musical procession, or even almost abstract, evoking the luminous mist that grazes the sea.

Still, the best is yet to come.

Grotesque masquerades

Obviously, an Ensor exhibition without masks would be weird. The second part of the show is therefore titled Interiors Featuring Women and ‘Masks’. Curator Herwig Todts call Ensor’s most notable contribution to modern art “the integration of carnivalesque iconography into his oeuvre. As a contemporary once remarked, Ensor makes use of the ambiguous status of the carnival mask in a completely new way. In his work, it is an instrument of human nature”.

At the time, his depictions of young bourgeois women in interiors were considered, according to Todts, “a tribute to the intimate charm and domesticity of their world. But ‘the woman’ is also the protagonist in grotesque masquerades such as ‘The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse’.”

Another striking example is “Skeletons Fighting over the Body of a Hanged Man”. This both funny and chilling work – the title says it all – belongs to the most impressive images that Ensor has put on canvas.

Ensor referred to colour as ‘the ornament of our spiritual wedding’

The artist is praised for a variety of reasons, but if there is one element that makes his work unique, it’s colour. He was a master colourist, which is perfectly expressed in the third part of the exhibition, The Touchstone of the Consummate Colourist: The Still Life. “Ensor refers to colour,” says Todts, “as ‘the ornament of our spiritual wedding,’ and he knew that it was the principal means by which he could send his viewers into a state of blissful rapture.”

However, at the heart of this section hangs a portrait, “The Oyster Eater”. But in the 1880s, Ensor’s friend, the poet and critic Emile Verhaeren, called this “a monumental still life.” Seeing how the upper body of the woman becomes an extension of the table at which she sits, this remark is spot on.

Since Dreams of Mother-of-Pearl is on view in a wing devoted to both Ensor and Spilliaert, it seems appropriate that the latter is assigned a (small) part of that space. Nocturnal Dreams shows a handful of Spilliaert’s works from the Mu.Zee collection, in which grey, black and earth colours predominate.

The contrast with Ensor could not have been bigger. The melancholy of Spilliaert provides a haven of peace to Ensor’s lust for life.

Until 16 June 2019, Mu.Zee, Romestraat 11, Ostend

Photo courtesy KMSKA, © - Art in Flanders vzw foto Hugo Maertens, Sabam Belgium 2018