Influenced by Hieronymous Bosch, Ensor’s best paintings depict violently grotesque visions of carnivals, masks, puppetry and skeletons. And while I did love a good lot of his stuff, I was left just as confused by a similar amount. It seems he wasn’t able to make up his mind about what kind of artist he wanted to be. The collection is torn between realism and mysticism: traditional still-lifes sit beside surreal images of insanity. It was such a contrast that at times I found myself glancing over to the exhibit labels to double-check it was in fact the same artist who had drawn both. It almost felt like two exhibitions, and it didn’t quite flow right.
Any artist who can dream up a painting titled “Skeletons fighting over a pickled herring” gets my vote. It’s like some twisted, traumatic vision I would come up with – yet even more impressive since it came from the mind of a Flemish-Belgian printmaker in 1891. I’ve been drawing a lot of messed-up stuff myself lately, so a visit to the James Ensor exhibition in the Sompo Japan Museum of Art couldn’t have come at a better time.
Saying that, it’s easy to see the allure of Ensor today. I guess he was the Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst of his day: his work disregarded as scandalous and barbaric by his late 19th Century audience. Yet we all know how everyone loves a rogue…
James Ensor in Context runs at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art until 11 November.