James Ensor, De rog (La raie), 1892. Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, Brussel, inv. 4489. Foto: J. Geleyns - Art Photography

The imagination of Ensor

The great Belgian painter could enliven the most mundane scenes

Artillery Row On Art

Who on earth is James Ensor? If you’re British, chances are you’ve never heard of him. If you’re Belgian (or Dutch or German), though, you probably know all about him. In Flanders, where I’m writing this in a windswept café on the Ostend seafront, he’s regarded as a figure of national importance — a name to set alongside Rubens and Van Dyck in the rich history of Flemish art.

There are plenty of Flemish artists who mean absolutely nothing to British audiences, and in most cases that’s no great loss. If there’s one foreign painter who does deserve more attention in Britain, it’s James Ensor. For one thing, he’s actually half English (his father, though born in Brussels, was a British citizen, the son of two English emigres). He was also a truly revolutionary artist, a pioneer of modern art. The most important reason, though, is that his unique artworks are terrific fun.

James Ensor, Rozen (Roses), 1892. Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België,Brussel. Foto : J. Geleyns

Go to any Belgian art gallery, and it’s hard to avoid Ensor. There are excellent collections of his paintings in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels and KMSKA in Antwerp, but the best place to see his work is here in Ostend, where he spent his entire life. Throughout 2024, Ostend is staging numerous events and exhibitions. Although the excuse for this Ensor year is actually pretty spurious — the 75th anniversary of his death — it’s a great opportunity for Brits to discover an artist whom they can call their own, in a seaside resort not far from home.

When Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860, his hometown was a sleepy place, barely more than a fishing village, but when sea bathing became chic, it quickly became a boomtown. Leopold II, King of the Belgians, came here on his holidays, and le tout Belgique followed in his wake. Ensor’s English father had failed at several careers (medic, engineer, businessman), but his Belgian mother was made of tougher stuff. She ran a souvenir shop, which generated enough money to raise her two children — James and his sister Mariette — and allow her amiable husband to become a barely functioning alcoholic.

James wasn’t remotely academic, but he had a natural flair for drawing, and thankfully his canny mother found sufficient funds to send him to the art academy in Brussels. He excelled at art school and made some influential contacts. Rather than staying on in the Belgian capital after graduating, he returned to Ostend, and moved back in with his parents. An attic room above the shop became his studio, where he toiled away for the next 30 years.

Painting in this provincial garrett, he might easily have been forgotten, but the Brussels cognoscenti beat a path to his attic door. Curators and collectors loved him. It’s easy to see why. His realistic early paintings are powerful and atmospheric. If he’d continued in the same vein, painting impressionistic seascapes, his work would still command considerable attention. Instead, in the late 1880s in his late twenties, he switched to a more expressionistic style, cementing his place as a key player in the evolution of modern art.

Today, Ensor’s expressionistic paintings can seem like just another stage in the development of modernism, closely aligned with German expressionists like Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix. It’s easy to forget that Ensor was a generation older than these German artists; his journey into expressionism predated theirs by 20 years.

Seeing the masks and skulls and strange creatures in Ensor’s paintings, I’d always assumed he must have a vivid imagination. When you come to Ostend, you realise he simply painted what he saw. His mother’s souvenir shop sold all sorts of grotesque curios, and Ostend’s annual carnival enabled its respectable citizens to commit all sorts of indiscretions in disguise.

Other still lifes look lifeless and pedestrian by comparison

Compared to his fantastical carnival scenes, the new Ensor show at Mu.Zee, Ostend’s municipal art gallery, is relatively tame. It’s a display of still lifes — a genre which accounted for about a quarter of his output — but although these pictures of food and drink are no substitute for pictures of manic revellers making mayhem, they show how Ensor could enliven even the dullest scene. The exhibition includes other still lifes painted around the same time by other artists, and the difference is astounding. Their dreary workaday daubs look lifeless and pedestrian by comparison.

A short walk away from Mu.Zee is the Ensorhuis, where the family souvenir shop and the apartment above have been carefully preserved as a museum. You realise what a humdrum life he led — a petit bourgeois Belgian in an obscure backwater, with extraordinary creative gifts. It goes to show that you can still harbour big ideas in a small town.

Ensor lived until the grand old age of 89 — a remarkable lifespan, straddling an era of tremendous change. He never married. He had no children. His private life remains a riddle. He was certainly eccentric, but he also had a wicked sense of humour. Anecdotes about his idiosyncrasies abound, but I suspect they may have been practical jokes, played at everyone else’s expense.

Ensor was ennobled in 1929, an honour which he embraced with a refreshing absence of false modesty. “Baron James Ensor” reads the headstone on his grave, in a small churchyard on the edge of town. Heroically, Ensor saved this church, the Maria Kerke, and the surrounding dunes, from developers.

The rest of Ostend wasn’t so lucky. In 1900, Baedeker called it “one of the most fashionable and cosmopolitan watering places in Europe”, but even in Ensor’s lifetime it underwent a steep decline. Occupied by the Germans in both world wars, it was bombed by both sides, but many of the worst architectural atrocities were committed by the Belgians. For every Belle Époque building destroyed by war, several were demolished by postwar speculators, who made a quick buck replacing ornate villas with bland apartment blocks.

Like a lot of British seaside towns, Ostend’s tourist trade was undercut by cheap flights to Spain, and the Eurostar scuppered its cross-channel traffic. It shares the same fitful climate as southern England, and if the weather’s foul (which it often is) it can feel pretty bleak. However, when the sun shines it’s a lively place, with some delightful Art Deco relics hidden amidst the modern high-rise: most notably the Hotel du Parc, a nice place to stay, with a stylish brasserie. There are some superb places to eat — try Belle de Jour, which doubles as a cosy B&B.

Yet it’s James Ensor which makes Ostend special, and the more time you spend here, the more his ghost seems to come alive. There are too many tales to recount, but one story stands out for me. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, two brilliant young German artists, Franz Marc and August Macke, made a pilgrimage to Ostend to visit Ensor, an artist they’d always admired. They knew war was near, and Ensor was in his fifties. They figured this might be their last chance to meet him. They were right, but not in the way that they’d imagined. Marc and Macke both perished on the Western Front, fighting for the Kaiser’s army. Ensor, on the other hand, lived on until 1949.

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