The KMSKA has the world’s largest Ensor collection. Not to mention the most varied: besides almost 40 paintings, the KMSKA has sketchbooks, drawings and etchings. The paintings let you trace James Ensor’s career through all his experiments and evolution, while the drawings and etchings complete our picture of the artist and his work.
So it’s appropriate that Ensor has been given a wing of his own in the museum, with two brand-new, white galleries. His work serves as a pivot in the KMSKA collection between art before and after 1880. From a time dominated by narrative and realistic representation to one in which light, colour and form were used freely. The new galleries usher you into the wonderful world of Ensor, with its bourgeois interiors, masquerades, still lifes, seascapes and much more besides. Would you like to join us?
In the early days of his career, the young James Ensor mainly sought inspiration from the realistic painting of Gustave Courbet. He set up his easel outdoors or in the family home and painted his surroundings. His academic training led him to build up his paintings with a coloured base layer and mixed paint, just as he had been taught. But when he read about the Impressionists he began to feel an itch. This was the direction he now wanted to pursue, but how? According to what he had read, it was a question of pure rather than mixed colours. Ensor’s sister Mitche was used to posing for him and so he placed her at the table once again. He prepared his canvas in the same way as always too, with a ground layer. But then he did something new, setting his colours down unmixed: chrome yellow, vermilion, cobalt blue and lots and lots of white lead. Ensor initially titled the resulting piece In the Land of Colour, but we now know this scintillating painting as the Oyster Eater. Done in 1882, it marked a complete break with his earlier dark, bourgeois interiors.
Wild, with masks
It was not until four years later at the 1886 winter salon of the avant-garde society Les XX (The Twenty) in Brussels that Ensor was able to view canvases by the French Impressionists in person. He himself had arranged with the group’s secretary for the work to be included. It gave him the opportunity to compare his Oyster Eater and seascapes – his own ‘impressionist’ works – with those of Monet and Renoir. At which point he began to do something entirely different. Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise (1887), for instance. The technique is impressionistic, but he applied his unmixed tones in a highly individual and expressive way in scenes built up with some very strange forms. The time for restraint was over. Time for Ensor to go wild.
He enjoyed being provocative too, combining his love of satire with a pessimistic view of humanity. Throw in the fact that his mother’s shop was often filled with masks and you end up with a whole lot of mask paintings. Ensor was by no means the only artist towards the end of the 19th century to paint this motif. Whether as a decorative element or a mysterious way to conceal someone’s identity. In his work, however, the mask actually reveals its wearer’s true nature. This invention of his found its way into more mask paintings than were done by any other artist. The Intrigue (1890) is one of the finest examples.
Six times Ensor
The Oyster Eater, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise and The Intrigue are three milestones in James Ensor’s oeuvre. You’ll find all three of them in the KMSKA. Together with numerous still lifes, early bourgeois interiors and late seascapes, they fill two complete galleries. Still lifes and seascapes ran through Ensor’s life like a thread. No matter what experiments he conducted, he always returned to these two genres.
There are four smaller spaces between the two galleries in which we present other facets of Ensor and our collection, mostly through multimedia. His wide-ranging network: Ensor was by no means the loner his myth would have us believe. His creative process: the focus of the KMSKA’s Ensor Research Project. His works on paper: exhibited in regularly changing presentations due to the sensitivity of ink, graphite and chalk to light. You get especially close to Ensor on paper. In some cases, he took an earlier interior view and added a new fantasy element, giving a different meaning to both aspects.
Anything is possible with James Ensor. And certainly in the KMSKA’s new wing, where you will find Ensor the man, his milestones, his tastes, his methods and the people around him.