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Luscious Paint and Wicked Humor: Ensor @ MoMA

If you wait long enough and wish real hard, good things will come your way, or so I’ve heard. My dream this summer has come true with a very rare exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art of work by one of my favorites, Belgian artist James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor. A common theme I’ve found when researching artists, also true of Ensor, is that he did poorly in school (ha!) and -- something many young Americans can identify with -- he lived with his parents in Ostend, Belgium and had a studio in the attic. I don’t think there were basements then. It’s very rare to have so many of Ensor’s works assembled, incredibly over 200 paintings, drawings, and prints, allowing a true appreciation of not only his talent as a painter but his abilities as a draftsman and prolific printmaker.

I first came across Ensor’s work in college and was immediately attracted to the bizarre imagery and bold bright palette. His compositions of festively dressed, masked skeletons weren’t frightful: they seemed playful, with a knowing ulterior life that took pleasure in our folly. The real pleasure is that Ensor’s images are still fresh and still relevant. One small oil on panel, like The Bad Doctors or The Assassination -- is quite potent in light of the reports of botched prostate operations at V.A. hospitals. As one commenter on my Flickr page exclaimed -- he was a freak before the freaks boy genius! I think I’m in total agreement.

Ensor rarely traveled, leaving Ostend only for brief trips. His early work was considered scandalous, especially his iconic Entry Of Christ into Brussels, now in the Getty Collection. It took him several years to get his work accepted: the early work on view is a dark somber palette of domesticity. As his palette changed to the brighter colors we’re most familiar with and his subjects became more theatrical and bizarre, incorporating skeletons and masks, his favor grew; including being named a Baron by King Albert. His mother had a gift shop that sold masks for Ostend’s annual Carnival. This could have been inspiration for his carnival subjects, skeletons, and masked characters. The skeleton became more prominent after his father’s alcohol-related death.

Any good exhibition will surely make your head spin as you try to place the art in some kind of context. With Ensor it’s not possible and of course why bother -- he would have hated conformity, so here I go. My first thought was how could this fantastical work find a receptive audience in 1890’s Belgium, but there is a precedent with Hieronymus Bosch and the Bruegels that he took full advantage of with his unique style and wit. The religious themes of redemption, riffs on the Last Supper are repeated themes, and certainly Honoré Daumier’s satires of high and low society, especially through the printing medium (The Doctrinaire of Nourishment is a good example) -- they both a had wicked sense of humor.

It's much easier to spot the influence he had on his contemporaries and beyond, like George Gross, Paul Klee, Chagall, and visionary/outsider types; Henry Darger could have drawn The Cuirassiers at Waterloo. Not likely that they ever saw each other's work, but Ensor's landscapes have an uncanny resemblance to those painted by George Inness. But that's what a good exhibit will do, it inhabits your mind and makes you want to return again and again, and you should because this fabulous show is up only until September 21st -- or it may be a good reason to visit the Musée d'Orsay in October for the next stop. Visit my Flickr page for more images of the installation.

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