James Ensor at the Drawing Center

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


In
1882, just before his death, Manet was made chevalier of France’s Legion
of Honor. Four years later the Impressionists, who had been exhibiting together
since 1874, held their last group show. The 1880s, the first post-Impressionist
decade, also witnessed Van Gogh’s 10-year ecstatic swan dive (he died in
1890); Gaugin’s conversion from stockbroker to leader of a new Symbolist
avant-garde; and Toulouse-Lautrec’s artistic preparations for what would
become rapid-fire sketches of the butt-ends of Parisian nightlife. Like the approaching
century, a new artistic temperament was afoot. More diffuse than once revolutionary
Impressionism, the new art turned with a vengeance to themes emotive and subjective,
forecasting a condition the world would later recognize as 20th-century alienation.

Few
artists, except perhaps Edward Munch, plumbed that frustration deeper and more
effectively than James Ensor. The Belgian Ensor, master of satirically symbolic
works, turned the faces people wear when they emerge onto the street into horrible
masks; bitterly mocked religious, political and artistic establishments; brazenly
reinterpreted Christian doctrine according to his own radical politics; and never
ceased laughing, even at one of his more serious subjects, himself, in the case
of his numerous self-portraits.

Incorrigibly
dissatisfied and influenced by realists and fantasists alike, Ensor hewed to an
unsteady, nearly unclassifiable middle path between the grotesquerie of Bosch
and the social satire of Honore Daumier at a time made turbulent by bloody labor
strikes and fin de siecle pessimism. James Ensor was a progenitor of German expressionism
and a Surrealist avant la lettre; he prepared the way like an artistic John the
Baptist for new attitudes in a new century. He went so far as to make an hilarious
portrait of himself as a skeleton in the year 1960, and turned his habit of looking
forward to look back into an embracingly derisory, often eerily anticipatory practice
that resonates far into our own time.

Drawings
always occupied a prominent place in Ensor’s oeuvre. Impelled partly by sheer
cussedness and by the conviction that drawing was not secondary in importance
to painting, he exhibited his drawings as autonomous works of art throughout his
career. The size and composition of Ensor’s drawings suggest that the artist
ranked his works on paper as highly as his paintings. Seizing on this idea and
the amazing paucity of Ensor’s work in this country, the Drawing Center has
recently put together "Between Street and Mirror," an exhibition of
more than 90 drawings and etchings Ensor made during one of his most fertile periods,
the years between 1880 and 1900.

The
exhibit begins with work the young Ensor made after barely graduating from Brussels’
Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and moves step by step through the artist’s incipient
development, through a middle ground of novel experimentation, arriving eventually
at the liberated, ghoulish graphic style that is signature Ensor. Hung first in
the exhibition are a set of sketchbook silhouettes the 20-year-old made evidently
on the fly; then copies after works by Daumier, Delacroix and Turner; next come
competent realist portraits of fishermen and friends he made in his seaside hometown
of Ostend; and finally a group of intensely labored, twice-hatched still-lifes
the artist drew and redrew with a mind to inventing a set of highly original,
uniquely disturbing effects.

These
drawings, done in black chalk, conte crayon or pencil on one or more sheets of
paper, were begun in 1890 and finished only when Ensor returned to them some five
years later. Juxtaposing sets of hands, the faces of sleeping family members and
evil genies onto concentrated, realist chiaroscuro treatments of the household
clock, the family piano and the grating over the fireplace, he experimented with
a direct, if widely unacknowledged ancestor of montage while imputing a mysterious
layer of reality onto the unimpeachable normalcy of bourgeois living. Ensor, exploring
his own household, or at least that of his parents, was among the first visual
artists to concentrate on the hidden world behind middle-class appearances. The
ghosts and goblins lurking around the furniture of his drawing room turn out to
be both preternatural beings and, in 90s lingo, harbingers of repression and dysfunctionality.

From
unforgiving, unnatural family portraits like My Mother or Sloth to grotesqueries
like Plague Above, Plague Below, Plague All Around!–a scene of top-hatted,
parasol-toting middle-class leisure befouled by caricatures of the wretched lower
classes–Ensor gives free rein to his fantastical imagination and to a gregarious,
bristling line. Sourced from a photograph of an outing with friends and enlivened
by the artist’s ungirdled id, the latter drawing quickly loses its grip on
observable reality, inaugurating instead a universe peopled by fanciful caricatures
set inside an absurdly fictitious space. Beholden to the laws of Ensor’s
purposefully undependable perspective, the artist’s trenchant social criticism
wed an increasingly restless sense of form, producing in turn literally incredible
results. Travesties of his previous attempts at naturalist description, the Belgian’s
work henceforth moved toward darkly comical personal and communal narratives–a
realm that critic Sue Canning has correctly identified as the roiling, inspired
arena Ensor established between the bookend worlds of "private fantasy and
public vision."

In
time, Ensor became expert at fusing communal narratives, like the life of Christ
and contemporary events. Take one of the series of large-scale drawings on view
at the Drawing Center in which Ensor depicts the entry of Christ into Brussels:
drawn as if from a balcony overlooking a teeming boulevard, he packed his picture
with the jostling forms of working men and women and collaged the face of Emile
Littre, a philosopher well known for his interpretation of Christ as a revolutionary,
directly onto the figure of the drum major leading the parade. Another work, Death
Pursuing the Human Flock
, a copper etching that features a skeletal, rapier-wielding
image of death floating above a busy Belgian street, invokes Goya’s black
humored Disparates, while making explicit the themes that would preoccupy
Ensor for the rest of his days: death, cruelty, the erotic, the masquerade.

Referred
to as "le peintre des masques," he understood, again from Goya, the
use of masks in pointing up the reality behind appearances. Revealing rather than
hiding the inherent negative qualities they try to conceal, the crowded masquerade
in a work like Masks We Are or Intriguing Masks established the artist
as the ultimate gloomy interpreter of life’s gay pageant. He was skeptical
about nearly everything except his own genius, and poked time and again behind
the genteel, polished facade of modernity and found, in the words of one contemporaneous
critic, "the grotesque carnival of life, [that] which has suddenly materialized
before the eyes of those who seek its meaning."

"Between
Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor," through July 21 at the Drawing
Center, 35 Wooster St. (betw. Grand & Broome Sts.), 219-2166.

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