James Ensor (1860-1949) is considered one ot the leading representatives of the early twentieth-century Belgian avant-garde, even though he pursued a highly individual path which placed him outside the vanguard.
Overall he had an ambiguous, even tumultuous, relationship with the various circles he moved in, such as the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, which he denounced in a scathing satirical work entitled Three Weeks at the Academy (1884), or the Salon des Vingt (les XX), a new northern movement that was a hub of the European avant-garde between 1884 and 1893. He nevertheless participated in the development of this artistic group alongside Guillaume Vogels, Fernand Khnopff and Constantin Meunier, among others. In keeping with the satire of his time, which saw the birth of “modern laughter”, he developed a body of work comprising representations of contemporary figures of authority.
While in Brussels, from 1877 to 1880, his relationships with the painter and poet Théo Hannon, the Rousseau family and the geographer and anarchist Élisée Reclus brought him into close contact with the Université libre de Bruxelles and the city’s progressive, liberal scene. It was here that the seeds of his anarchist convictions, which echoed around Europe at that time, were sown. With the Rousseau family the artist also saw numerous comedies and playlets, whose carnival costumes had a great influence on him, as did Brussels’ own zwanze style of humour, from which the Flemish cultural anarchism of certain journals can be traced.
His return to Ostend in 1880 marked the beginning of his “sombre” period, when he painted in a realist vein, before fantastic beasts and skeletons emerged around 1885. From this date, he kept unwaveringly to his new direction and tried to distance himself from the les Vingt group, resorting in particular to etching, a technique that would enable his imagination and wit to reach a wider audience.
Dürer, Grandville, Rembrandt, Rops and Goya were influences, along with Bosch and Bruegel. From 1886 to 1904 he made one hundred and thirty-three etchings and drypoints – eighty-six of these between 1886 and 1891 – as well as a large number of lithographs. While printmaking was favoured by the fantastical visionaries of the nineteenth century, Ensor’s engravings were just part of his broader approach of negating the ideal. He did, however, embellish them with colour, and even transposed them into paintings (Christ Calming the Storm, 1890-1891).
He also continued a Flemish tradition of painting crowds and public festivals, which we see in the work of Bruegel, for example. Fascinated by inverting rules and disrupting the established
order, Ensor produced works containing the symbolic and stylistic seeds of Surrealism, which was to flourish some decades later.
On the pictorial side, this period saw the emergence of his more fantastical works, such as Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise (1887) or Masks Confronting Death (1888), as well as the mask motif, which parodies human society.
At the end of 1898 Ensor exhibited for the first time in Paris, at the Salon des Cent. On this occasion, he showed primarily prints and drawings; yet despite positive reviews from critics, his work was not as popular with audiences as expected.
The beginning of the twentieth century marked a turning point in Ensor’s career, as he began to achieve international recognition: in 1910, retrospectives of his work were held in Rotterdam and Antwerp; he was made a baron in 1929 and in the same year the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels devoted a retrospective to his art; and in 1933 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur – thus breaking with his anarchist past and prompting his attempts to suppress his more anti-establishment prints.
Critical reception of Ensor’s later works was unenthusiastic, and some paintings of this period were considered simple copies of earlier examples that had brought him acclaim. At the time of his death he was nevertheless considered the “prince of painters”, whose many selfportraits show the artist interrogating his own place within society.