Exhibition of the week Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans
Royal Academy, London W1 (020-7300 8090, www.royalacademy.org.uk). Until 29 January 2017 The artist James Ensor (1860-1949) was an “enigmatic oddball, both as a painter and as a man”, said Martin Gayford in The Spectator. Born to an “expatriate English alcoholic” father and a Belgian mother, he grew up in Ostend, where he spent almost the entirety of his life and career. Indeed, as far as Ensor was concerned, the Belgian port city was more or less the centre of the universe, and its “gamey atmosphere” permeated all of his work. (He was reportedly “badly offended” when a fellow artist suggested that Ostend was not “the whole world”.) Judging from this new exhibition, these eccentricities stretched into his painting, too: he started as a “gloomy” northern European realist, but then began to incorporate “wilfully bizarre additions”. The show has been curated by the “celebrated” Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, who has created a survey of Ensor’s unconventional career, interspersed with several works painted by Tuymans himself and by his contemporaries. The results are “curious” and “not always easy to follow”, but ultimately add up to a distinctly “intriguing” exhibition. For Ensor, Ostend was “a real place, but also a microcosmic land of myth and parable”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. He was particularly interested in the curiosity shop his mother ran, and painted almost everything she sold there. As a result, his art is “crowded with walking dolls, masks and goggling Chinese ceramics”, giving it the character of a “Halloween pageant”. What unites these disparate works is the “peculiarly exuberant energy” with which Ensor could make even macabre subjects seem “festive”. Even a painting of a dead skate on a platter seems to bear a “tragicomic expression”, as if it had been “caught drinking too much”. Ensor’s “self-imposed isolation” in Ostend turned him into a “sour, angry presence”, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Looking at his work, it seems that he disapproved of absolutely everything he painted – including himself. In one selfportrait, he presents himself with a “grinning” skull for a head. In another, he sports a “ludicrous”, flowery hat that even Marie Antoinette might have considered over the top. The best works here are a series of paintings of figures in masks. The Intrigue (1890) depicts a “crush of escaped loonies” apparently “grimacing, lurching, laughing and heading straight at you”. As an image of fin de siècle “disquiet”, it is up there with Munch’s The Scream. Though it is detrimentally affected by the “pointless” inclusion of works by Tuymans and other modern painters, the exhibition is a welcome showcase for this little-seen artist.
The Intrigue (1890): a “crush of escaped loonies”