Ensor and Spilliaert: Ostend celebrates its masters of light and shadow


A new wing at Mu.Zee honours the work of two of Ostend’s most famous sons, artists James Ensor and Leon Spilliaert – two men with very different artistic visions but a shared connection to the coast

The artists and the sea

James Ensor and Leon Spilliaert didn’t have much in common as artists, but they shared the city of Ostend, both living and working there for much of their lives. This connection, along with their contribution to Belgian art history, is celebrated in a new wing at Mu.Zee, Ostend’s art museum.

Ensor was born in the city in 1860 and, apart from three years spent studying in Brussels, lived there until his death in 1949. Plotting his own course outside the artistic mainstream, he became famous after the turn of the century for his satirical, carnivalesque images involving masks, skeletons and other grotesques.

Spilliaert was born in Ostend in 1881 and was self-taught as an artist. Influenced by symbolist painters such as Fernand Khnopff and Odilon Redon, he developed a personal visual language that drew heavily on the city by the sea and the oppressive interiors of his home. Once established as an artist, he alternated living in Ostend and Brussels, dying in the capital in 1946.

“There is a huge difference, not only between the work of both artists but also in their thinking about art,” says Philip Van den Bossche, director of Mu.Zee. “And there was more than 20 years difference in age between them. So, putting them together is not the most logical thing to do, but at the same time they are the two masters from that period of Belgian art history, and they are both from Ostend.”

Telling stories

Calling the new space devoted to Ensor and Spilliaert a “wing” is a little misleading. It lies in the heart of the museum, on the ground floor behind the staircases that lead up to the main exhibition rooms. For the past few years, this space of roughly 1,000m2 has been closed off, a holding area for art works while new storage rooms were built in the basement.

As that work neared completion, Van den Bossche and his team started to think about how to use the recovered space. Focusing on the city’s most important native artists was the easy part; deciding how to tell their story was another matter.

The nostalgia and melancholy of a historical narrative was to be avoided. “We wanted to look at Ensor and Spilliaert as contemporary artists,” Van den Bossche says, “and at the same time, because we are the only place that can do this, we wanted to bring the city of Ostend into the museum.”

There is a huge difference, not only between the work of both artists but also in their thinking about art

- Philip Van den Bossche

Entering the wing, the visitor is greeted by two massive photographs, both taken on the same balcony at Ostend’s Casino. The sun was shining on the day in 1926 when Ensor was photographed, and you can see the mass of bathers on the beach behind him spilling into the sea. Spilliaert, photographed a year earlier with the sculptor Oscar Jespers, is sheltering from the rain, but the beach in the background still seems to be busy.

“What is interesting for me is this play between foreground and background,” Van den Bossche says. “The sea is always the main character, in a way, and the sea plays an important role in both their paintings.”

The way they did this was quite different, as becomes clear as you explore the new wing. The first section, devoted to Ensor, covers his early years and his efforts to capture the light over the city, from his attic studio, and over the sea. Paintings such as “After the Storm” (1880) and “Large Seascape – Sunset” (1885) seem to strive for realism, while the more fantastic “Christ Calming the Storm” (1891) pushes the experiment further.

“It’s not about the subject for Ensor, but what he can do in a painterly way,” Van den Bossche says of this canvas. “Personally, I find Ensor’s painterly search for light more fascinating than his masks period.”

Eerie and claustrophobic

Spilliaert, meanwhile, painted Ostend in the moonlight, inspired by long walks through the city at night. “The Gust of Wind” (1904) shows a lone girl standing on the sea front, her black dress lifted to show a flash of white underclothing, her face twisted into an expression straight out of Edvard Munch.

Some of Spilliaert’s most famous monochrome works are here, including “Seascape with Wake” (1902) and “Vertigo” (1908). Mu.Zee is also fortunate to have two of his eerie self-portraits, along with a number of claustrophobic interior paintings. These contrast with lesser-known colour paintings, such as the large, stylised portrait of the patron PG Van Hecke and his wife, Norine, from 1920.

We are lucky that it is here: it gives an insight into a painting that will probably never travel again

- Philip Van den Bossche

Spilliaert is well served by Mu.Zee’s collection, which has an extensive selection of work from his most productive years, but Ensor is a different matter. “We don’t have the largest collection of Ensor paintings, nor the highest quality,” Van den Bossche concedes. “In both cases that is the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. But we have a lot of drawings and graphic work, and a lot of Ensor’s archive, such as books, letters, and press clippings.”

When it comes to the work that made Ensor important to the 20th-century avant garde, Mu.Zee has one undoubted masterpiece, the “Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat”. This was first completed in 1883 as a conventional self-portrait, then modified five years later when Ensor gave himself a hat covered in bright flowers.

But for his trademark masks and skeletons, it has to fall back on drawings and etchings, which nevertheless make a vivid impression. “The Masks and Death” (1898) is a striking large drawing in colour that captures the spirit of Ensor’s grotesques, while his satirical work is represented by “The Gendarmes” (1892) in which soldiers keep the public away from two dead bodies.

Too fragile to travel

It is also a joy to discover “Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels’ (1888), a minutely detailed etching that reverses Bruegel’s “Fall of the Rebel Angels”, giving the monsters the upper hand. Other subjects in this vein include “Death Chasing the Flock of Mortals”, “Skeletons Seeking Warmth Round a Stove”, “Hop Frog’s Revenge” (an illustration for Edgar Allan Poe) and “The Haunted Furniture”.

For three months these paintings are ambassadors for our museum in London

- Philip Van den Bossche

A further oddity is a section dedicated to a ballet for which Ensor composed the music and designed costumes in 1923-24. In addition to a full set of character drawings, Mu.Zee has some of the costumes that Ensor painted by hand. Three of the least fragile are displayed on dummies.

The weakest point is a section revolving around “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” (1888), a massive painting that Ensor kept with him in Ostend for many years. There are photographs and press clippings of the painting being moved in and out of Ensor’s apartment for various exhibitions, but the work itself is absent; since 1987 it has been in the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

In its place is a tapestry version, which was conceived and planned by Ensor, but not produced in his lifetime, because it was either too expensive or too complex for contemporary weaving methods. It was completed using modern techniques in 2010 and donated to Mu.Zee.

Van den Bossche mounts a strong defence of its inclusion. “We are lucky that it is here, because it gives an insight into a painting that will probably never travel again, because it is too fragile,” he says.

Complete poetry

The possibility that work displayed in the new wing may also be required to travel has been taken into account. “It is sometimes a problem for single artist or smaller museums that the most important works cannot travel, because they are part of a permanent collection story,” Van den Bossche explains. “But the wing has been conceived so that, from time to time, we can change one or two works and it will not change the narrative.”

The first two disappearances will be Ensor’s “Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat” and Spilliaert’s 1913 portrait of Andrew Carnegie, both of which will appear in Luc Tuymans’ Ensor exhibition at the Royal Academy in London from October this year.

Van den Bossche doesn’t mind the paintings going. “It’s important for us as a museum and for the work of Ensor and Spilliaert,” he says. “For three months they are ambassadors for our museum in London.”

He is not sure yet what will replace the Ensor, but Spilliaert’s Andrew Carnegie portrait will be replaced by “The Blue Basin” (1907), his own favourite by the artist in Mu.Zee’s collection. “It’s just a plate, but the way the light reflects on it has a complete poetry.”

Ensor and Spilliaert: Two Masters of Ostend, Mu.Zee, Romestraat 11, Ostend