In your wildest dreams 
Ensor beyond impressionism

Temporary exhibition
28 September 2024 until 19 January 2025

In autumn 2024, James Ensor will be taking over the KMSKA with one of the biggest Belgian Ensor exhibitions since 1999. In this exhibition, you will dive into Ensor's wonderful universe of wild visions, masks and satire. We will be showing Ensor side by side with work by international artists who inspired Ensor and with whom he wanted to measure up. Because above all, Ensor wanted to be sharper. More radical. Even if his competitors were named Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Degas or even Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco Goya. 

The KMSKA boasts the largest and most varied Ensor collection anywhere in the world and is also home to the Ensor Research Project – the leading centre for the study of this modern master. All of which makes the museum the ideal venue for the all-round exploration of the artist offered by Ensor’s Wildest Dreams.

In Your Wildest Dreams

Ensor wanted nothing less than to become Belgium’s leading avant-garde artist. He sought to achieve this by introducing French Impressionism into his work, but he did not actually know a great deal about the technique. In the period 1880–85 he ended up developing his own version of Impressionism, which actually owed more to the Realism of Courbet and Raffaëlli. It was during those years that he painted works like Bourgeois Interior and The Oyster Eater. When he actually saw the work of Degas, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro in 1886, he decided to change direction completely. As far as the exhibition is concerned, that pivotal moment marked the true beginning of Ensor’s varied oeuvre.

He embarked on his new artistic adventure in 1887 with the painting Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise and his drawing of The Temptation of St Anthony (Art Institute of Chicago). He applied his paint unmixed, straight from tube to canvas, achieving an expressive power all of his own, with 101 nuances of colour. His penchant for the strange resulted in a visual language that was grotesque and frightening.

The painter juggled images at once hilarious and hellish, of the kind you normally only see in your wildest dreams. Where Ensor had previously been an artist who constantly broke the rules, he now set about rewriting them entirely. Like a true game-changer, Ensor allowed himself to run wild.

Corner of Café-Concert - Manet, National Gallery: When Ensor read about Manet, he felt the urge to outdo him with a form of Impressionism all of his own.
The Temptation of St Anthony - – Ensor, Art Institute of Chicago: Renewed secular interest in St Anthony inspired Ensor to produce this collage-drawing

Ensor Beyond Impressionism

Ensor’s attempts to unite humour and horror led to his most eye-catching contribution to the birth of Modernism. He began to paint canvases featuring imaginary mask-creatures. Other artists in the 19th century had done something similar, notably Nolde. But their masks were a decorative element or an enigmatic means of concealing a person’s identity. Ensor was the first to use them in order to reveal the human being’s true nature. This was his invention.

The art of James Ensor is steeped in the late-19th-century satirical humour beloved of sophisticated circles in Brussels and Paris. The exhibition firmly shows him from his most satirical side.

The Ensor Year

The exhibition is part of the Ensor Year. From September 2024, several Antwerp museums will highlight the artist's oeuvre with a series of ambitious exhibitions. The focus will be on Ensor's enduring relevance through cross-pollination with contemporary art, fashion and photography. With the largest Ensor collection in the world, this avant-garde artist lives on in the KMSKA.