Just as there are composers whose work is almost uniformly superb, but they are not regarded by self-appointed cognoscenti as in the top tier – Gesualdo, Busoni, Alkan – there are painters of extraordinary gifts whose reputations are not as stellar as they should be. For example, Samuel Palmer, Gustave Moreau and this post’s subject, James Ensor.
Ensor was a Belgian with a unique style that tended to produce unsettling or grotesque images. He created a somewhat evasive world of the macabre or unexpected. Faces often looked like masks, and just as frequently, his subjects wore masks. It’s no surprise that one of his good friends was the Belgian creator of Bruges-like dreamscapes, Fernand Khnopff. He was a wealthy man anyway, but also achieved a reputation and success in his lifetime, and he died in 1949. Today, by coincidence, is his 154th birthday.
His religious paintings probably stemmed from an obsession with mockery, pity and suffering, rather than personal belief, but they include some remarkable works. Today being Palm Sunday, and therefore remembering Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his death, there is a conventional title, but not remotely conventional imagery, Christ’s entry into Jersualem It can be hard to make out, being dark chalk on paper:
…and much more famously, the same scene transposed to Brussels, of all places, packed with recognisable locals, as part of the turbulent mob. The modern transposition seems odd, but it’s actually not at all different from Ensor’s fellow Low Countrymen, Bruegel and Bosch, in their own biblical scenes. The grotesquerie is in full flow.