James Ensor – The innovator of 19. century art

20 Jan

My tastes have evolved over the years and though I despised modern art merely a year ago, recently I found myself liking Expressionism and Surrealism. One of the things I love about art is that you can always find out something new – there are so many art movements and artists to choose from. James Ensor is a painter who intrigued me and the more of his painting I’ve seen the more I loved his work.

James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890

               1890. ”The Intrigue”

James Ensor was born in Brussels on 13. April 1860. He left school early, at the age of fifteen, to live his passion – art. He attended Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels from 1877. to 1880. His work was first exhibited in 1881. At the end of the 19. century most of his paintings, particularly Christ’s entry into Brussels (1889.), were considered scandalous, preposterous and even insulting. Who knew that a young man painting in his parent’s attic would turn up to be the innovator of the 19. century art. He was instrumental in influencing Expressionist and Surrealists. Seems like the initiator always ends up being misunderstood, and rigid Victorian society certainly wasn’t prepared for James Ensor.

james ensor skeletons

               1896. ”Death Chasing the Flock of Mortals”

Ensor did get acceptance, tough gradually, but he continued to exhibit his paintings and eventually won acclaim too. His early paintings were somber and gloomy but at the end of 1880s he choose bizarre subjects and lighter palette. His paintings are easily recognizable by grotesque masks, skeletons, carnivals and puppetry. Noted for his incredible gift for allegories, he used masks as a theatrical aspect in his still lifes. Bright colours and mask’s plastic forms attracted Ensor and he painted with complete freedom. His paintings show great originality and his views on the world, that is, his disapproval of the society and rigid norms that prevent one from developing entirely as a human being.

james ensor the frightful musitians

               ”The frightful musicians”

Turning point in Ensor’s work happened in four years; between 1888. and 1892. From bizarre themes which included skeletons and masks, he turned to more deeper subjects and religious themes such as the torments of Christ. As a master of allegories he showed his disgust for the inhumanity of the world. Painting Christ’s Entry into Brussels (1889.) shown below, is considered a forerunner of twentieth-century Expressionism.

1888. Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889.

               1888. “Entry of Christ into Brussels”

The characters on the painting are based on Belgian politicians from Ensor’s times, historical figures and members of his close family. Ensor himself was an atheist but he identified with Christ as a victim o mockery. In final years of the 19. century Ensor started receiving recognition, but he painted less and his style softened. In fact, the last fifty years of his life are seen as years of decline.

james ensor pierrot lunaire

Pierrot lunaire”

His paintings, earlier characterized by aggressive sarcasm and scatology, were now only mild repetitions of his earlier work. Paintings The Artist’s Mother in Death (1915) and The Vile Vivisectors (1925) turned out to be the most significant works of his late period.

james ensor Pierrot and Skeleton

               ”Pierrot and Skeleton”

His work was different from art of the time but he influenced many 20. century artists such as Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Alfred Kubin, George Grosz, Felix Nussbaum and many other Expressionist and Surrealist of the 20. century. His work is partly considered symbolism, but the originality and choice of subjects made his paintings stood apart from other paintings of the era. He isn’t as famous as other artist of the time, but certainly equally important.

james ensor mascaras singulares

                             ”Mascaras singulares”

I relished looking at his paintings; the great originality and undoubted sense of humor and sarcasm show profound disdain and disappointment in society; feeling many artist had in common. I love his paintings because they are experimental, colourful, wide open and different; Ensor didn’t follow the pattern, he, as it turned out to be, created his own pattern by setting the scene for Expressionism and Surrealism.

1891. James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man

               1891. ”Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man”

1894. James Ensor - Masks looking at a tortoise

               1894. ”Masks looking at a tortoise”

1909. James Ensor - Flowered craniums

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