The exhibition, named Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor, opens in the Art Institute of Chicago as of 23 November. From June through September, James Ensor (1860-1949) was the star of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles with The Scandalous Art of James Ensor. Now, the Ostend Master takes over Chicago.
That the Art Institute of Chicago puts on a large Ensor exhibition is not all that surprising. Since 2006, the institution is in possession of Ensor's most important and largest drawing: The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1887). The drawing is the vanguard of the exhibition. The piece was completely restored and consists of 51 sheets of paper that originally were affixed to a canvas. During the recent show in the Getty, the drawing was exhibited for the first time since 1951. In Chicago, the context in which the monumental drawing came to being is evoked. As such, there was an appeal for more than 100 paintings and drawings, of which many come from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent (MSK).
The Temptation of Saint Anthony originated in 1887 during a turbulent period in Ensor's personal life. Letters to family members, which recently surfaced, expose Ensor's personal and professional travails. In one of the letters, Ensor openly speaks about a plan for suicide. Moreover, Ensor complained about physical discomforts. The theme of the Temptation of Saint Anthony is exceptionally popular in the history of Art. The obstinate Ensor gives his own utterly original interpretation to the centuries-old iconography of Saint Anthony. He transports an Anthony on stage, who is confronted with the dangers and the evils of the modern and turbulent life at the end of the Nineteenth Century: corrupt politics, illness, sexual aggression, and even the Belgian fries show up as a temptation. Ensor kept the colossal drawing for 50 years in his possession.
Both the KMSKA, which has the largest Ensor collection in the world, and the MSK are loaning out a substantial portion form their collections. The KMSKA is providing 41 drawings (amongst which is the monumental The Mystical Death of a Divine) and 33 paintings. Masterpieces such as The Bourgeois Salon, Afternoon in Ostend, The Oyster-eater, The Intrigue, Astonishment of the Mask Wouse, Skeleton Painter in his Studio, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise and Fall of the Rebel Angels are present in Chicago. Man of Sorrows by Aelbert Bouts (1451/1455-1549), also from the KMSKA collection, shows that Ensor is indebted to the Old Masters. The work was an inspiration for his Man of Sorrows -also present in the exhibition. The MSK then is loaning, among others, Children at their Morning Toilet and two large drawings: Christ's Entry into Jerusalem and Christ Shown to the People.
Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor is a co-production with the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
Exhibition Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor
November 23 through January 25, 2015
Art Institute of Chicago
(News item November 21 2014)