Relaunched James Ensor House cements ties between artist and his city

Summary

The Symbolist master’s longtime home in Ostend has been refurbished and augmented by an interactive visitor centre

BEHIND THE MASK

Since 2017, the house where James Ensor lived and worked for 32 years has been closed for renovation – but on 14 July, in an uncanny echo of one of his pictorial tropes, the new-look museum was finally unveiled to an audience wearing face masks.

The €3.6 million development was due to open in May but was delayed by the coronavirus. It comprises Ensor’s refurbished home and an adjacent Experience Centre. While James Ensor House focuses on interactive exhibits rather than original artworks, a ground-floor exhibition space will host biannual shows on the artist. Numerous citywide events are planned, and there will be an Ensor year in 2024.

Entry to the site also includes a download code for a digital city walk that has been rejigged to mark the launch. Spanning 13 sites, it ends at Mu.ZEE, which dedicated a wing to Ensor and his Ostend near-contemporary Léon Spilliaert in 2016 (its Ensor collection is currently buoyed by loans from Antwerp’s shuttered fine arts museum).

“The advantage for Ostend is that it now offers a whole day of Ensor activities with the house, the walk and Mu.ZEE,” says Wim Vanseveren, a strategic advisor on the project and former head of Flanders’ tourism department. 

A MACABRE VISIONARY

Ensor is viewed as a pioneer of Expressionism and Surrealism among other -isms, and was a prolific writer and musician. Major international shows have spread his fame since the 1950s, with Belgian artist Luc Tuymans curating a 2016 homage at London’s Royal Academy; in a further coup for Ostend, the UK venue is now spotlighting Spilliaert.

Both artists’ myths are inextricable from the city. Born in Langestraat in 1860 to an English father and a Belgian mother, Ensor spent three years studying at the Beaux-Arts in Brussels and retained ties to the city, going on to co-found avant-garde artistic group Les XX in 1883. But, bar a handful of trips abroad, he remained anchored in the North Sea port for the rest of his life, witnessing it morph from sleepy fortified town to Belle Epoque bathing mecca.

It’s fascinating how such a universal artist was so bound to his own small spot

- Xavier Tricot

“He loved to paint the sea, the sky and the light, and saw the city as a kind of mythical place,” says Xavier Tricot, an Ensor expert instrumental in the House’s conception. “It’s fascinating how such a universal artist was so bound to his own small spot, trying to sublimate it into something far bigger than himself.”

By his mid-20s Ensor had abandoned conventional seascapes and interiors for his macabre trademarks: masks, skeletons and skulls denoting human folly.

His works were often fiercely satirical, exposing hypocrisies across justice, medicine, politics and religion. A Blakean outsider, he often felt attacked by critics – though his vision grew less ferrous after he became Baron Ensor in 1929.  


“For me his most interesting paintings were made between 1885 and 1900,” says Tricot. “It’s a moment in his life when we can consider him as a true visionary.”

In the annus mirabilis of 1888, he made 45 etchings and his most famous painting, “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889". Depicting a masked and menacing carnival mob, the scabrous work merges public figures, Ensor’s familiars and an isolated Christ on a donkey – a caricatured self-portrait of Ensor as maligned prophet.

Ensor’s dark turn was partly inspired by the oddities in the souvenir shop his mother ran at the family home, where he had an attic studio from 1880 until 1917. That year, after inheriting his uncle Leopold’s house, he moved across Vlaanderenstraat to what is now James Ensor House, living there with his housekeeper until his death in 1949. Before renovation, it was open to the public but on a far-reduced scale.

For me his most interesting paintings were made between 1885 and 1900. It’s a moment in his life when we can consider him as a true visionary

- Xavier Tricot

The experience centre, which occupies the neighbouring building, formerly the Hotel Providence-Regina, roams across facets of his work and world through five themed rooms strong on touchscreens.

One panel lets visitors explore details of Ensor’s teeming, Brueghel-esque “The Baths at Ostend” (1890), in which he inserted mating dogs, peeping toms and sexual innuendo (via bathing machine numeration) to mock the prudish mores of the day.

“Though we were inspired by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, as far as we know there’s no centre devoted to an artist that’s as interactive as this,” says Vanseveren. “It’s something early visitors have found remarkable.”

In keeping with the family-friendly remit, there is a kids’ version of the audio guide; they can try speed-painting or follow clues to discover a “fake Ensor” in the house.

One revelation is Ensor’s environmental credentials, conveyed through an animated film by Ostender Raoul Servais, the first Belgian to win a Palme d’Or. “He was green avant la lettre,” says Tricot. “He wrote protest letters and pamphlets against vivisection, and was among the first public figures to want the coastal dunes protected.” 

Intimate interlude

Ensor’s former home offers a strikingly intimate complement to the visitor centre, and – in the case of his uncle’s souvenir shop, which he preserved but never reopened – a beguiling time warp. On its shelves, pieces of tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and coral rub up against unclassifiably odd objects, some still with the original prices in francs.

Another highlight is the blue salon where Ensor painted and entertained notable guests on his beloved harmonium with renditions from La Gamme d’Amour, a work for which he created the costumes, scenery, music and scenario.

The sprawling “Christ’s Entry” once hung above it and, while the original is now at the Getty Museum in the US, much of the decor is authentic, down to the jaunty feathered hat that the artist sports in “Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat” (1883).  

Visits end in the gallery, whose debut show, Ensor and Ostend, features around 40 paintings, drawings and etchings of boats, street scenes and rooftops. It includes youth works and an original panel of “The Baths of Ostend”.

In the future, Tricot plans to run a show juxtaposing Ensor and Magritte – both drawn to the grotesque. He is not short of further material: “He’s so diverse, so interesting, so active across different media, we could make 50 different shows about Ensor.”  

The James Ensor House refurbishment was co-funded by Visit Flanders, the province of West Flanders and the city of Ostend. Tickets must be booked in advance via the website. Ensor and Ostend runs until 27 September; the Ensor walk (Ensor Wandeling) is available without visiting the museum for €5.49.

Photos: Nick Decombel