James Ensor painted with a skull propped on his easel. Ensor was a classically trained painter, graduating at age 20 from the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but his work immediately and powerfully swerved nasty. While contemporary painters like Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted girls practicing piano, and Cézanne meditated on apples and pears, James Ensor painted skeletons fighting over the corpse of a hanged man. Ensor’s work is scary even now, almost seventy years after his death. Livid colors, grotesque expressions, and unstable composition, and those damn masks. Always with the masks.
Ensor is a tough personality to read. He lived and worked in the attic of his parent’s home in Brussels, so it’s tempting to label him a shut-in. But in 1883 he co-founded Les XX, a liberal art collective of twenty Belgian artists. Les XX held an annual show, where Ensor exhibited alongside artists like, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh. This social and national exposure isn't the behavior of a hermit, and later in his life Ensor gave speeches introducing artists and writers for exhibition openings.
It’s these public addresses that hint at the motivation behind Ensor’s wild, crude and alarming work. MOMA curator Anna Swinbourne describes Ensor as having a ‘wicked sense of humor’ and a ‘deep interest in carnival and performance’—and there it is. James Ensor loved to entertain, to shock, horrify, confound. He cross-dresses in self portraits, paints kings shitting on the commoners, and the human heads served for dinner, all with the morbid grin of his favorite skull.
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Reed Enger, "James Ensor, Grim fandango," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 25, 2016; last modified November 06, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/james-ensor/.