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Staff Report

FRANKFURT, 8 January 2006—James Ensor (1860 Ostend – 1949 Ostend) became a legend in his lifetime. In his later years, the rooms above his mother’s curiosity shop in Ostend, Belgium, where he lived his whole life long, became a place of pilgrimage for artists, collectors, and museum people who visited him to pay his respects to him. There, amidst his paintings and drawings, he received Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, Wassily Kandinsky, and others. Besides Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, Ensor is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the "avant-garde of the North.".

Ensor's paintings peopled by masks, skeletons, and imaginary creatures, as well as his theatrical still lifes have become unmistakable symbols of the absurdity of existence and influenced both German Expressionists and French Surrealists. Especially when seen in the light of present-day trends, such as the renaissance of the figurative and the narrative, the simultaneousness of painting and drawing, or manifestations of the grotesque and comic, Ensor’s work obtains new topical relevance. With eighty masterpieces on canvas and the same numbers of works on paper from international museums and private collections, the exhibition on view at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt until 19 March 2006 presents key works from each of his creative periods.

James Ensor: Death and the Masks, 1897
oil on canvas
Photo courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Ensor repeatedly re-explored certain subjects has helped to establish an attitude within traditional art historical research according to which he had already developed all essential subjects such as masks, death, and self-reflection by about 1900 and only produced few innovative and artistically important things after. Even the more recent retrospectives in Europe (Zurich 1983, Brussels 1999) presented merely a small selection of his late works.

The exhibition at the Schirn not only includes more of the artist’s late work but, by choosing a thematic rather than a chronological form of approach, also discloses that the breaks in Ensor’s work are less significant than maintained so far. Arranged according to themes and motifs like "self-portraits," "death and masks," "pictures of Christ," "landscapes," "still lifes," "theater and music," and "caricatures," the show presents a selection of central works from all periods of production. This elucidates Ensor’s concept, introduces earlier and later works as parts of conclusive series, and unfolds new contexts. As the various media were mutually dependent on each other for the artist, the exhibition also shows paintings, drawings, and etchings next to each other.

James Ensor: Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring, 1891
Photo courtesy of
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Though James Ensor called himself a "painter of masks" it would be wrong to reduce his work to this aspect. Nevertheless, the works which show groups of grotesque and distorted mask faces surrounding a skull or an entire skeleton, number among his most famous achievements. By depicting skeletons, Ensor took up classical motifs of the Flemish tradition, such as the medieval danse macabre which was to remind people of their mortality. Ensor’s alter ego death has nothing degenerate though but is mostly portrayed with humor and irony. The masks harassing him are not only a manifestation of Ostend’s absurd carnival tradition which is still alive today but also stand for the petty bourgeois who rejected the artist and scoffed at him. To this day, Ensor’s fame as "an astonishing colorist" is mainly based on the work group of his mask pictures for which he relied on bold contrasts of unmixed colors for the first time.

Ensor also integrated masks and skulls in his still lifes for which his family’s souvenir shop in Ostend served as a kind of everyday "art and curiosities chamber" that provided a motley of shells, chinaware, keepsakes, stuffed animals, and manifold bric-à-brac. His entire work, but above all the group of his still lifes, clearly mirrors this bizarre world.

James Ensor: Self-Portrait With Flowered Hat, 1883 / 1888
Photo courtesy of
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Ensor’s self-portraits constitute another work group. His early work confronts us with portraits of the young artist classically positioned at his easel with a flower hat as an ironical note on his great model Rubens. Equally capturing are his self-portraits as a melancholy Pierrot or as Christ being crucified by his critics several times – an unequivocal reaction to the years of slating and disapproval the artist suffered before gaining acclaim only in his late years.

James Ensor
17 December 2005 - 19 March 2006
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
Frankfurt am Main
Tel: (49) 69 29 98 82-0

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