What, more Ensor? So far, the 150th anniversary of the Ostend painter’s birth has been celebrated by a full-dress retrospective in New York and Paris and by a convivial show in his hometown of Ostend. Within the space of one year, don’t the prospects of a third and, later this month, a fourth Ensor exhibition risk overkill?
Two more shows celebrating the Flemish artist open this month
The short answer is "no". James Ensor was a true original - his range of style and subject matter exceeded anything seen in his own era (1860-1949) and, arguably, since. Unclassifiable, the work continues to challenge even the scholars who specialise in it. In what remains of "Ensor's Year", those specialists are presenting the artist from widely different perspectives.
At the end of this month, a vast exhibition of contemporary art indebted to Ensor opens in Ghent; last week in Brussels, and for the first time ever, the many splendours of the world's largest Ensor collection were unveiled, along with a trove of little-known works from far-flung private and public holdings, in a show of 62 paintings and 145 works on paper that trace Ensor's full career.
The unrivalled collection belongs to Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where Ensor found his first committed group of buyers in 1905. It boasts 37 paintings - many of them, such as "The Oyster Eater" (pictured), icons of the artist's work - and more than 500 drawings, which the museum bought at the artist's death. It's the latter that are the revelation of this exhibition, aptly titled Ensor Revealed.
They show the Flemish artist diligently copying the old masters and his peers, doodling humorously for his own amusement, giving free hand to fantasy and transforming his own drawings from earlier decades. His output, imagination and skill as a draftsman were prodigious and, whether limning saints or grotesque figures, free association was his guide.
One of the least familiar paintings in the show, Ensor's final large canvas, depicts the religious procession that takes place annually in the West Flemish town of Veurne. In the foreground and surrounded by costumed figures, the aged artist is shown in conversation with a younger man in modern dress. To their left is a crude profile that would not be out of place in the deliciously repellent "Astonishment of the Mask Wouse" (also in the show). The anti-establishment Baron Ensor would have been delighted to know that the work is now owned by the Vatican Museums.
Until 13 February ING Cultural Centre Koningsplein 6, Brussels
Hareng Saur: Ensor and Contemporary Art
31 October - 27 February Museum of Contemporary Art Citadelpark, Ghent