James Ensor Unmasked

The roots of Expressionism are revealed in MoMA’s major retrospective of the 19th-century master of the macabre.

The grandfather of Belgian avant-garde art and a precursor to the development of Expressionist Art in the early 20th century, James Ensor was an innovative, experimental artist, who produced an influential body of work in a variety of media. A retrospective exhibition, which presents 120 paintings, drawings, and prints, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, through September 21.

Known as a “painter of masks,” Ensor made work about the world around him—seeing it at different times in natural, satirical, and visionary ways. Born in 1860 in the Belgium coastal resort city of Ostend, where he mainly resided until his death in 1949, Ensor produced his best work in the 1880s and 1890s. An independent thinker, he was unrelated to any particular movement of his time.

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The earliest works on exhibit at MoMA—still lifes, cityscapes, domestic interiors, and portraits—are conventional in subject matter but inventive in the use of paint, which is applied in multiple brushstrokes and patches with a palette knife. There’s a marvelous contrast between light and dark forms, but also a feeling of melancholy in the muddiness of his colors.

Ensor breaks out from his somber palette with The Oyster Eater (1882), one of the larger paintings in the show. A grand still life, with a woman activating it, the painting makes light and colors the dominant players. Although he would continue to sometimes paint dark pictures, and henceforth develop an interest in dark, grotesque subject matter, his skill in the use of color only grew.

His first painting with masks came in 1883, an encounter between a man and a woman, and is followed by countless more paintings of masked figures, where the masks, skulls, and skeletons take on a life of their own. Self-Portrait with Masks (1899) is one of the best, depicting the artist surrounded by, but different from, a crowd of masked ghouls.

Self-portraits are a favored subject of Ensor, who portrayed himself as Jesus Christ, food for a meal for critics, cross-dressed as women, and skeletal remains. An artist with a theatrical sense of humor and the ability to astonish viewers, he was an original talent in every medium he touched. James Ensor made his mark in a 20-year span of his career, and then seemed to just fade away. Rediscovered by another generation, his work now lives on forever.

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Paul Laster is the editor of Artkrush.com, a contributing editor at Flavorpill.com and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.