James Ensor at the RA

A neglected show in London at the moment, being somewhat overshadowed by the Abstract Expressionists in the same venue, is Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans. I deliberately spell out the name in full since this show is much more than a retrospective of the career of Ensor. In fact the title itself doesn’t do full justice to the range of art on offer since it misses out another artist whose work is on display, Léon Spillaert.

And it was Spillaert who really grabbed me on the first walk around. His self-portrait is obviously Munch-ish but also has its own weird loneliness that looks forward to Edward Hopper. While his portrait of Andrew Carnegie is one of the most chilling I’ve ever seen. An eyeless and soulless Carnegie stares from the canvas in a picture of utter malevolence that no amount of philanthropy could subvert.

But Ensor is the star. Ensor who starts out like an Anglo-Belgian Sickert, all still brown interiors, and then explodes into colourful surreal genius. This is symbolised for me by his own self portrait.


A pretty straightforward depiction save for the at-the-extreme-end-of-dandyism hat. Calm eyes offer a challenge. Do you take this seriously? Well, do you? I think you should. The question I kept asking myself was, who was he making these images for? What market was there for skeletons eyeing chinoiserie? Or for a pair of skulls fighting over the carcass of a herring?


One of them sporting a bearskin. It has the horrific absurdity of a Goya witch.

And Tuymans is no passive curator. He has inserted works of his own which echo and talk to those of his compatriot, such as his ‘Gilles de Bindes’ which refers back to a beautifully plued real life carnival hat displayed in the opening room and whose ancestor Ensor included in his own picture of carnival.

But the work which I enjoyed the most was the opening film. Rarely do I have the patience for video art but this film, a fake of Welles-ian genius, depicts a party on the beach at Oostende. Despite the inclement weather it made me want to visit Belgium as soon as possible.

But for a month or so more you can see Belgium in all its quirky unexpectedness in just a few rooms at the Royal Academy. Much more interesting and surprising than the overblown yanks below, who seem the most humourless bunch of po-faced canvas wasters set against the deftly humorous savagery of Ensor and his confrères.

#Art #London #Ensor

Art Belgium Culture Exhibitions London

f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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