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James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890 
Oil on canvas, 90 x 149 cm 
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten 
Photo KMSKA (c) - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / (c) DACS 2016


Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans


  At The Royal Academy of Arts, London 


by Floriana Piqué


The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kind, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams.


--Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop



Mask to Unmask

Born in 1860, in the Belgian coastal town of Ostend to an English father and Belgian mother, James Ensor grew up surrounded by masks, chinoiseries, shells, various carnival items, a monkey, a parrot, numerous cats, all inhabiting a curio shop run by his Flemish mother and aunt.

This environment was a constant theme underlying his work and his life. The images of him at an old age, taken in his drawing room or his studio, always present him alongside of masks, skeletons, and anthropomorphic ceramic vases.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy is curated by another Belgian artist, the great contemporary painter Luc Tuymans, providing a rare opportunity to understand and immerse ourselves in Ensor’s work through his eyes.

The selection of Ensor’s works (paintings, drawings, etchings), the inclusion of other Belgian artists (Leon Spillaert, Guillaume Bijl and Tuymans himself) and of two artifacts linked to Carnival masquerade, the layout of the installation with no writing on the walls to invite to an intense, fully immersive journey, all make very legible Luc Tuymans’ longstanding relationship to and respectful love of Ensor’s paintings.

Luc Tuymans

photo courtesy of Ludion

James  Ensor
(c) Coll.Part.

…as a kid of 16 or 17, I visited the Koninkljik Museum voor Schone Kunsten (in Antwerp). That’s where I first saw The Intrigue, which for me remains one of his most enthralling paintings. I was captivated by the masks, they are so colourful. And even the older works of Ensor that I saw then fascinated me. 


--"The Art of Painting Nothing," Luc Tuymans in conversation with Adrian Locke in the exhibition catalogue

The painting The Intrigue, 1890 is the focal point around which the entire exhibition has been conceived and constructed. The room where it hangs is a web of multiple emotions. Many questions arise before this work and others in the same room, like The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse, 1889. It’s immediately evident that Ensor is an amazing scenographer. At first sight, these paintings appear as staged sets.


But, as Tuymans points out, is this the real world, are these people enjoying themselves during Carnival, or is this a parallel reality?

A number of masks on one side of the painting and a skeleton with a dislocated jaw on the other side are the backstage, the behind the scenes to a center stage: a group of people dressed in bourgeois, elegant attire, whose faces are distorted by a different kinds of masks/expressions.


Masks are distorted physiognomies, some shifting towards animal features, others perceived as subtraction of identity or frozen in astonishment.

James Ensor, The Skate, 1892 
Oil on panel, 80 x 100 cm 
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels /

photo: J. Geleyns - Ro scan (c) DACS 2016

The brightness of colours and the density of the brushstroke add to the theatricality of the scene. As always in good theatre, it’s hard to separate what is real from what is a play of imagination.


In the Mid Nineteenth Century, Ostend underwent a big process of urban renovation, becoming a very fashionable holiday resort on the North Sea. This construction activity involved the excavation of mass graves with a consequent disinterment of skeletons.


The young Ensor must have been easily impressed.


Ostend also had a tradition of hosting one of the most famous carnivals in Belgium, with mask parades and masked balls.

Maurice Antony, James Ensor surrounded by his paintings, 22 June 1937. 
Mu.ZEE, Ostend Photo (c) - Art in Flanders vzw / (c) DACS 2016 

As this exhibition highlights, Ensor is much more than “a painter of masks”, even if this motif stayed with him all his life. In The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1889, probably his greatest achievement, now at the Getty Museum, LA and never to leave on loan, present here in the form of a small etching, the crowd assembling to welcome Christ is a dense mixture of real persons and masks. The curator, Tuymans, stresses this aspect by juxtaposing Ensor’s painting The Intrigue with Portrait of Andrew Carnegie, 1913 by Leon Spillaert, a younger contemporary of James Ensor. The empty eyes of the Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist turn the features of the portrait of a real person into a ghostly mask.


The painting Gilles de Binche, 2004 by Luc Tuymans and two artifacts from the Musee International du Carnaval et du Masque de Binche – an ostrich feather headdress by an unknown artist and six fabrication stages of the masks worn by the Gilles de Binche by Jean-Luc Pourbaix – complete the discourse on masks.


Luc Tuymans, Gilles de Binche, 2004 
Oil on canvas, 191.5 x 76.5 cm 
Private Collection 
Photo Courtesy of David Zwirner,

New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp / (c) Courtesy Studio Luc Tuymans

James Ensor, Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere, 1888 
Black, blue and red chalk and graphite on paper, 22.5 x 30 cm 
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp 
Photo KMSKA (c) - Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / (c) DACS 2016 

While the carnival mask is worn to elude and hide an identity to favour incognito, the theatrical mask, for example the Arlequin of the Commedia dell’Arte, delineates, elevates and emphasizes a character immediately recognized by the spectator.


Ensor’s use of masks in his staged paintings is of this latter kind. We can perceive Luc Tuymans’ use of vanishing, fading, quiet but bright colours as being similar. In Gilles de Binche, 2004 he paints a character from the famous Binche Carnival, Belgium, wearing a giant mask made of ostrich feathers.


We can understand Tuymans’ constant attention to and investigation of how we identify individuals in Glasses, an exhibition of his work currently on at the National Portrait Gallery, London, where the sitter in every portrait wears glasses.


For this artist, the banality of glasses, an everyday object, contributes, like a mask, to a distortion of features, changing dramatically the way an individual is seen.

Portrait by Luc Tuymans, 2000; Private Collection; Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Ensor painted self-portraits in different moments of his artistic life. Portrait of the Artist at His Easel, 1879 when he was only 19; Self-portrait with Flowered Hat, 1883 where a very enigmatic artist wearing a fancy hat stares back to the viewer; The Skeleton Painter, 1896 where he depicts himself as skeleton at his easel, surrounded by his paintings, masksand skulls scattered around.

Light plays a very relevant role in Ensor’s landscape paintings since the beginning. From Bathing Hut, 1876 painted when he was only 16, to later and more complex works like Large View of Ostend, 1884, where he treats light as dimension, as a creator of space.


These are landscapes of seaside at the edge of a continent, of an atmosphere that the artist absorbed, interiorized and mastered, having spent most of his long life there.


His was an entire live lived in isolation broken only occasionally by a few trips abroad.

Recognition for Ensor’s work came late in his career, but, when exhibited, his work had a profound influence on younger artists who went to visit him in his studio, including Wassily Kandinsky, Emile Nolde, and Max Beckmann. In 1933 Albert Einstein, temporarily exiled in Belgium, met Ensor at the restaurant Au Coeur Volant in de Haan. The opera Einstein on the Beach, 1976 by Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass takes inspiration from that meeting.

His late success pushed Ensor to entrust the preservation and diffusion of his work to drawings, etchings and prints. In this exhibition, Tuymans put together a big, good selection of Ensor’s works on paper, in a display that emphasizes this medium and confirms Ensor as skilled draughtsman.


Some small drawings – mainly in crayons, coloured pencils or pastels – like Nymphs, Dancers, Demons, c.1908 are so intense, they are better understood as drawn paintings.


We can read into certain copper plate etchings, like the ones from The Deadly Sins series: Lust, 1888; Avarice, 1904; Gluttony, 1904; or others, like Hop-Frog’s Revenge, 1898, Ensor’s concern, at this time in life and career, for the legacy of his work and his desire to be acknowledged and prized at last.

Ensor enjoyed a long life, spent almost entirely in the same place, Ostend. He died in 1949, aged 89.

A glimpse of this kind of life can be seen in the fake black and white film James Ensor in Ostend c. 1920, 2002 by Guillaume Bijl. For Tuymans, this work is an integral part of this exhibition and evidence of the impact Ensor’s work still has on contemporary artists.

Guillaume Bijl

James Ensor in Ostend ca. 1920, 2002

Black and white film Guillaume Bilj, Antwerp

Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London.



The exhibition Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans is at The Royal Academy of Arts, London until January 29, 2017.


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