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The Time and Place for James Ensor, Unmasked

Artists who express a fondness for masks aren't necessarily kooky. Carnival masks often show up in the art made in joyous seaside cultures whether it's Venice, New Orleans, Rio, or yes, Ostend. A major seaside city that rose to prominence due to the importance as a harbor, Ostend, Belgium, home to artist James Ensor (1860-1949), is well known among tourists for its esplanade, scenic cityscapes, and seasonal events. Among the latter is the popular carnival (external link ) at the beginning of March, a traditional event that includes clog throwing, dress balls, and something called a "Cimateire-parade." Ensor's parents sold masks for carnival revelers, along with other theatrical fare, and so the painter would often leave his attic studio to walk downstairs to borrow anything that would serve his artistic whims. Masks and skeletons, imagery a Cimateire-parade would inspire, became the props for his satire, iconoclasm and importantly, for wild artistic experimentation. People hailing from boring Puritanical cultures would not find him trustworthy.

James EnsorEnsor's art career begins normally enough, by the look of things in MoMA's exhibition. Though lacking the signature major piece, Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, in the collection of the Getty Museum, or representative works from his later years, the exhibition in MoMA's special sixth floor galleries gives a good sense of the early years and the subsequent "kookier" ones. Trained in an academic style but veering toward the modern, the portraits, landscapes, and domestic scenes of his young years look ambitious and accomplished for a twenty-something. His scene of Brussels Town Hall (1885) shows an oddly compelling juxtaposition of a building on the left, adorned with squares in primary colors, with a loose and expressive line of buildings on the right. Variations on the primary - red, ochres, and blues, often characterize his palette, infusing his Lady in Distress, for example, a moody painting of a woman in a bedroom with only one curtain open. Props from the parents also find use in nicely rendered works such as in Chinoiseries with Fans and humorously in Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat. His portrait of his father shows a respect for the man as well as a sense of comfort and ease with paint. But, along with these works, we see a hint of what's to come with The Scandalized Masks from 1883.

Entering the next gallery and scanning the novel artistic experiments from the subsequent phase of his life, the viewer may jump to the conclusion that he's lost it. His figures grow cartoonish, flat, grotesque, and symbolic rather than representational, and his colors go wild. I've never seen anything quite like Fireworks, an exuberant expression of an awe-inspiring spectacle in flaming yellows and oranges exploding over the cool blue ground. Christ enters the picture, specifically in Brussels, and the depictions of the scene, as revealed in large drawings, point to the kind of obsessive qualities often characteristic of self-taught artists. Identifying with the Christ figure, he overwhelms the street with a crowd of politicians, public figures, and even members of his family. Experimenting with line, color, and most famously with light, he’s searching for his personal best form of communication. He’s never lost an ability to render the human figure in traditional ways. The portrait of his dying father, for example, shows he’s respectful of the old school.

The presence of top-hatted flaneurs, many donning pig-like masks, and grotesquely lipsticked individuals of all genders in many paintings show his fondness for the visual culture of social performance. Taking to the streets and sites of public amusements, Europeans of the 1880s like Ensor explored the spectacle of vision, of seeing and being seen. Walking the streets in fine clothes or concealed behind a costume and mask prompted a willingness to suspend conventional social manners for a topsy-turvy spectacle of alternative self-invention. At MoMA, while stopping to look at the painting The Intrigue (1890), several people excitedly murmured about the resemblance of one particularly grotesque figure to the late Michael Jackson. A contemporary reading, yes, but it was dead on, considering the intriguing discourse about the performer's own tragic-comic quest for self-identity.

Exhibition info:
James Ensor
Through September 21, 2009
The museum has an excellent website devoted to the Ensor exhibit. See it here.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Monday, July 20, 2009. Note: Personally, I don't think taking an interest in masks is kooky.





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