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Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor


The artist James Ensor continues to fascinate us with his deft line and angry satire; especially when his pointed drawing tool is aimed at society. The Ensor family was part of the bourgeoisie of Belgium, and his father was a highly educated man. Nevertheless, his family declared bankruptcy in 1875-76, due to a general downturn of the Belgian economy. Ensor senior began drinking heavily. The family then moved to Ostend, a seaside village, and Ensor worked in the family's curio shop that catered to the summer tourist trade. The masks in this shop were to appear often in Ensor's work, and this childhood experience of economic struggle was to help Ensor identify with the working class.

This show of James Ensor's etchings and drawings brings together some of the most interesting work done by this still underappreciated artist. Though the show displays work from between 1880 and 1911, it focuses mainly on his most experimental and provocative period from 1880-1888. This was the period when he was an active member of the Les XX group, an avant-garde salon, and before Ensor's antagonism toward society led him to become a recluse back in Ostend.

Ensor attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, where he made the copies of Rembrandt, Turner, Delacroix and Daumier drawings that are also included in this exhibit. His work at the academy was judged to be poor, and came in among the last in the year-end competitions; He quickly became disenchanted with academic criticism of his work.

Ensor soon found himself caught between his petit bourgeois background and the tumultuous politics of the time. King Leopold II and the conservative Catholic Party ruled over Belgium in the 1880s and turned a blind eye to the troubles of the working class. Huge construction projects were initiated while the lower classes suffered. The church took control of the education system, and filled students minds with conservative Catholic doctrine. In 1889 Ensor made a scathing etching called Doctrinaire Nourishment where the King and the heads of the Catholic Church are shitting on the heads and open mouths of the populace below. The shit is incredible in its color and quantity, as if to show how much people were willing to swallow. In another political pencil drawing, Belgium in the 19th Century (1889) the king is shown up in the sky like a god peering down through his spectacles on the rioting mob below. The crowd includes women holding banners demanding secular education and suffrage, while being beaten by soldiers. The king looks down vaguely and asks: "What do you want? Aren't you happy? A little patience;No violence. I don't see very well.

It is clear that by this time the artist had embraced the anarchist ideals of personal responsibility within society, as put forth by his contemporaries such as the French philosophers Elisée and Elie Reclus. The role of institutions in society was rejected in favor of personal moral choices. The Les XX group also believed in social change through anarchy and individualism. The group hung a red flag outside their salon in order to show unity with the newly formed Belgian Workers' Party, holding rallies for workers rights. During the 1880s Ensor was also close friends with the scientists Ernest and Mariette Rousseau, who introduced him to realist theory, based on scientific observation. Anarchism, atheism, socialism, and other liberal causes became attractive alternatives to the oblivious politics of the King and Church.

The recurrent preoccupations of this extremely singular artist are fascinating. As linemaker, he weaves the line compulsively through space, describing and bouncing off of objects, alluding to half-hidden visions and dreams of demons lurking around his subjects. The constant arabesque weaving of his line makes a perfect arena for this kind of satirical invocation. Things can be easily hidden in the melee of scratches and hatching. As we examine Nude with Balustrade, a charcoal drawing, we realize that the nude has faces on her breasts. In another drawing of his mother holding a lapdog, there is a hidden face of his aunt in the background. There is evidence that Ensor began these drawings as studious sketches and then reworked them with his satirical monsters a few years later. Ensor’s line also makes a kind of light that flickers and funnels in and out of the forms he is observing. His concern is the very nature of observation.

The rioting mob scene depicted in the colored etching The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1889) is a bitter satire, illustrating a well-developed political point of view. Though centrally located and wearing a gold halo, Christ, in this crowded etching, is hard to notice, and seems swallowed up by the procession of grotesques and commercial opportunists surrounding him. One banner reads“Les Charcutiers de Jerusalem”; as if to imply his awaiting fate. This etching expresses one of the recurring themes in Ensor's work: his identification with the religious martyr surrounded by the oblivious masses. In Cavalry (1886), he goes so far as to inscribe his name over Christ on the cross. In this drawing, Christ is being stabbed in the heart by a long spear, from which hangs the name“Fetis.” This turns out to be the name of a critic who doesn't like Ensor's work.

By the late 1880s Ensor became embittered by the lack of regard his work had received. Even the Les XX group seemed to ignore his importance. This further contributes to his sense of isolation and scorn of society. In The Dangerous Cooks, he depicted his head being served on a platter to awaiting critics at the table. Two of them are vomiting, and one seems to be creeping upstairs to be sick. In Ensor’s world ignorance wins over truth, and evil wins over good. He was brutally honest about his own demons as well. In the etching Demons Teasing Me, the monsters are grabbing at the worried artist from all sides.

Artists who see this show will identify with the sense of being misunderstood, misjudged, or simply overlooked. The sense of being an outsider judging the follies of one’s surrounding social structure is also common among us. Bitterness, usually the enemy of the artist, is here put to good use, and that is what really sets James Ensor apart. Whether he focuses his gaze in the mirror or on the streets, it is always piercing.


Cecily Kahn


The Brooklyn Rail


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