Who Was That Masked Man?

John Haber
in New York City

James Ensor

James Ensor enters textbooks, if at all, with a single painting. His growth as an artist extends barely ten years.

At age twenty, in 1880, he paints his first masked figures in peasant clothing and clown colors. Late in the decade he produces The Entry of Christ into Brussels, itself a gigantic carnival. He hardly strays from Ostend, on the Belgian seacoast. He seems forever an outsider—a pure fantasist and a precursor of expressionists like Emil Nolde. James Ensor's Masks Confronting Death (Museum of Modern Art, 1888)

Strangely enough, his retrospective may suggest something else again. He seems a cautious realist and an equally cautious modernist. He may or may not believe in Christianity. He may not even believe his own fantasies.

He does, however, have a very peculiar belief in himself. "In the fight between you and the world," Kafka wrote, "back the world." Ensor has something else in mind. He enjoys the medieval carnival—with its celebration of excess on the eve of repentance, death, and decay. He just gets to supply the last judgment. He could lie in judgment behind every one of those masks.

The sea of mockery

The Entry of Christ into Brussels is probably Ensor's largest canvas. Its red, blue, yellow, and green almost drown in a sea of white. So, for that matter, does Jesus. A smiling crowd sweeps him forward and to the right, toward a stage. The stage managers look less like Biblical authorities than carnival barkers or judges at a country fair. A banner overhead, Vive la Sociale, might identify it as a socialist rally or just a social occasion.

If one looks hard enough in the background, one can find him. Jesus has a tiny halo, but even his red robe makes him incidental to foreground figures in the same color. The strongest tones at the painting's center belong to a horizontal row of soldiers, and God knows what side they are taking. Their line presses the crowd further forward, and their smiles as for Ralph Eugene Meatyard in photography could belong to joy, inanity, or masks. One looks like s skeleton in a top hat. The crowd could be supporting Jesus, mocking him, or just plain ignoring him.

Ensor takes all this personally. He was fighting with his own side in Belgium's late nineteenth-century culture wars, painters who called themselves Les Vingt, for "the twenty." He is just as ready to depict himself as Jesus or as lost in a sea of mockery. Even then, he is always smiling. He is clearly running the show and enjoying his own spectacle. He labels a later painting Demons Tormenting Me, but it could easily run the other way around.

The Entry of Christ does not appear in Ensor's retrospective. It cannot travel from the Getty, but no matter. He has a large study for it on paper as early as 1885. For my money, his two best and brightest paintings belong to MoMA anyhow. Temptation of Saint Anthony anticipates the scale and composition of the more famous work, but with sketchier angels and demons floating—or descending—through the sky. The other has ragged maskers in close-up. Say what you will, but this artist is consistent.

He has those first clowns, in fact, right at the start. A woman, ambiguously the proprietor or a witch, interrupts a man at a frugal supper. Both have hideous noses, and only hers clearly belongs to a mask. In the show's last and most debonair self-portrait, from 1899, the painter looks out from still more masks. There is no mistaking him—but if one enters at eye level, below his face, one might find oneself searching high and low. Many masks have eyes, and some look dead or alive.

In that Self-Portrait with Masks, Ensor achieves his most modern composition—one whose influence extends even to an artist from Nicaragua, Farley Aguilar, today. Large overlapping faces almost make eye contact and extend to the painting's upper edge, almost like a Cubist portrait. By then, though, the show has already all but given out five years earlier, and he lived until 1949. A narrow vision had become complacency. Still, he was ambivalent about the present all along. His subject matter keeps a careful distance from the here and now, and so does his style.

Two claustrophobic realisms

Ostend lived off the sea, and fishing does appear in Ensor's art. Characteristically, it is dysfunctional. In the 1880s, he paints fishermen on strike. Later he paints fishwives, and as ever he has a special problem with women. Elles ont mangé, says the painting, trop de poissons: they have eaten too much fish.

It was also a resort town, not far up the coast from Dunkirk or Calais. Yet Ensor hardly cares for seascapes, like those of Claude Monet in Normandy. Unlike Impressionism, this is not the "painting of everyday life." At the same time, Ostend lies near Bruges, a picturesque town with great Northern Renaissance art. Yet he never looked that way either. Instead, he looks just a little bit ahead and a little bit back.

Ensor studied in Brussels, where he had his first solo exhibition. MoMA skips some of his more academic realism, such as a boatsman. The Lamp Boy of 1880 could pass for Flemish genre painting of its day, and it stands between interior portraits. However, it already looks like an excuse to slather on white. At the same time, one notices how dark it is—and so are his streetscapes, reduced to narrow, monochrome alleyways. Even in portraits, darks bury faces, as if already behind masks.

He may not like the Renaissance, but he loves the early Baroque. Ensor's usual pose copies Peter Paul Rubens—with a lean face, three-quarter profile, and feather in his cocked hat. The thick, dark textures and blurry highlights emulate Rembrandt. However, the dark smears also relate to the claustrophobic realism of just before and after Impressionism. Think of Gustave Courbet, but think, too, of a later backwater in Modernism, the New York of George Bellows and the Ashcan school. The best early interior, a woman at a shimmering kitchen table, beats Édouard Vuillard to the punch.

He starts to lighten up around 1885, with or without white paint. He has discovered J. M. W. Turner, who drives the yellow explosion of a fireworks display. Turner seascapes definitely haunt Christ Calming the Sea in 1891, where the storm gets the better of the deal. Ensor turns up the scale as well—for the fireworks and for Saint Anthony. Incidental characters may become mere accidents in a larger composition. So, for that matter, may the heroes.

The discipline of drawing helps cut through the gloom, and the curators integrate sketches alongside paintings. MoMA's Anna Swinbourne and Jane Panetta, working with Susan M. Canning, also give two walls to engraving and drypoint. Mostly, though, Ensor just had to embrace his insanity. His reality could only belong to an earlier time or to the next century. It could not live with others around him—whether in the academy or on the cutting edge. No wonder he pictures himself as his redeemer.

Letting himself be

Ensor has been enlarging things, but also keeping them heavy, like the yellow fireworks. In the rest of the 1880s, he finishes the job by simplifying. The clown show gets bigger and more prominent. It can layer white upon white, as with swirls of decorative white trim on their white suits. More often, though, the artist at last aims for thinner colors, clearer outlines, and bigger fantasies. Most of all, he discovers his true subject, himself.

By the end of the decade, he was famous enough to fight with everybody. Does that sound peculiar alongside the role of victim? Think of him as the local art scene's tabloid figure, but with the painter doubling as managing editor. Les Vingt tried to stay current, inviting major artists from France to visit. At least one of Ensor's scenes may derive its color from Vincent van Gogh. However, he heads more and more into his own world.

Compositions thin out further in the 1890s, to the point of cartoons. They flow increasingly from left to right, and they include more text. A restaurant scene bears the label Les Cuisiniers Dangereux—the dangerous cooks. Here waiters bear the artist's head on a platter like John the Baptist. Ensor may not feel comfortable in public, but he feels downright jaunty as the forerunner of the second coming. Just watch what you order for dinner.

All these creative impulses have something on common. It is not just the ambiguity of hero and victim, but also the ambiguity of theater and observer. Call it silly or profound, but it links him most closely to the future, right down to today. Sure, one can see his echoes in Expressionism, his long noses in Alberto Giacometti, and his clowning around in Philip Guston. With its heavy black outlines and religious subject, one painting could pass for Georges Rouault, the French modernist. It hardly matters how much Nolde, Giacometti, Guston, or Rouault thought about him.

Theater has come more into its own in the present, with the artist behind each and every mask—or no one at all. Bruce Nauman might be playing the same role in Clown Torture, from 1987. Paul McCarthy is always playing it. Cindy Sherman, Allison Schulnik, and Sara Greenberger Rafferty have all posed as a circus clown, painted one, or carried on like one. One and all have just swooned over the late Picasso as Mosqueteros. Ensor hardly knew how much an artist can enjoy torturing himself and others.

He could paint skillfully enough when necessary. However, he needs the circus. It matters more even than he does, and his self-portrait wears out its welcome. He left a truly minor art but some truly memorable observers. They can lie on floor with live faces and empty suits. It matters most of all that masks can have eyes.

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James Ensor ran through September 21, 2009, at The Museum of Modern Art.


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