Ensor and Tuymans meet in London art gallery’s double act


While Luc Tuymans’ stock has risen in the UK, James Ensor remains little known; a new exhibition of the latter’s work, curated by the former, brings his experimental, satirical and often unsettling pieces to an international audience

Equal billing

The posters on the London Underground describe the Royal Academy’s Intrigue exhibition as “James Ensor by Luc Tuymans”, giving the two Flemish artists equal billing.

This shows how high Tuymans’ stock has risen in London, both as a painter and as a curator – but also how low Ensor’s profile still is with the British public. When Rubens filled the Royal Academy last year, he needed no introduction.

Despite sharing the billing, Tuymans is not out to steal his predecessor’s thunder. This is an exhibition that puts the case for Ensor (1860-1949) as a great painter and draughtsman, with a rich selection of his work densely packed into three rooms.

The title comes from “Intrigue”, one of the paintings that attracted Tuymans to Ensor when he was a teenager. “Captivated by the theatrical power of this work, with its unsettling crowd of masked figures, I found myself questioning which elements were true and which were false,” he recalls in his introduction to the show.

“For me Ensor was a scenographer, depicting a strange world that was neither tangible nor imaginary, populated by inscrutable beings. Perhaps the painting was a vision of the parallel existence that for Ensor, the perpetual outsider, signified reality.”

Serious side

Other striking examples of this uncanny thread in Ensor’s work include “Astonishment of the Mask Wouse” and “Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man”. Even the fish in “Skate” has an unsettling, mask-like quality.

There are also examples of Ensor’s satirical work, such as “The Dangerous Cooks”, in which the artist’s head is served up to the critics on a platter, and a selection of self-portraits, including the celebrated “Self-portrait with Flowered Hat”.

A more serious side to the artist is found in his large religious paintings, such as “Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise” and “Fall of the Rebel Angels”, and in his experiments with light, from bourgeois interiors to the storm-troubled sky over Ostend, his home town.

The exhibition draws heavily on public and private collections in Flanders, particularly that of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. It’s a tantalising glimpse into the riches awaiting rediscovery there when it reopens in 2019.

Tuymans has included just two of his own works: a student etching that shows a strong Ensor influence, and a tall painting of a Gilles from the Binche carnival in Wallonia, connecting with Ensor’s love of masquerades.

Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans, until 29 January, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Photo: Royal Museum for Fine Arts Antwerp ©www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw, photo Hugo Maertens