Ensor, occasional modernist.

Ensor, occasional Modernist. An Investigation into James Ensor's Artistic and Social Perspectives and the Interpretation of his Art.

(An abstract of the thesis submitted by Herwig Todts for obtaining the degree of Doctor in the Sciences of the Arts (Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, University of Ghent).


There is no unanimous consensus amongst art historians regarding the meaning of the concepts of: "Modern," "Modernism" or "Modernity". Nevertheless, the term "Modern Art" is generally used as a collective term for the Art of the 19th and 20th Centuries. It appears likewise not so simple to establish the general foundational characteristic of the art of this time period. The principles of the theory and praxis of the art of the ancien régime become in any case gradually discarded. These include the belief in a universal ideal of Beauty, the classical hierarchy of genres and the standard, rational methods for rendering a true-to-nature illusion. The spurning of one or more elements of the classical artistic theory goes hand in hand with the typical modern desire for originality or innovation. Both positions lie at the basis of the parade of artistic styles, the consecutive "isms" that are characteristic for the art of the 19th and 20th century.

In addition, a large number of art historians acknowledge that an artistic movement also existed in the course of the 19th and 20th Centuries that indeed profoundly wanted to realize a coherent, positive programme, which was more specific in nature. The programme of this movement was notably formulated by a contemporary of Ensor. The French painter Maurice Denis admired the new art of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne and asserted that "a painting, before being a war horse, a nude woman or some story, is essentially a plane surface covered by colours assembled in a certain order". Some 70 years later, the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg will assert that within Western Art itself, from the second half of the 19th Century up to and including the art of the American Abstract Expressionists, this process of purification has been carried out. Artists were in search of the essence of the medium and that is what lies in what Greenberg calls "flatness" with regards to the art of painting. It does not come about in perceiving reality objectively or subjectively and to then render it objectively or subjectively, it rather comes from the search for the possibilities to autonomously use colours and forms on the flat surface of a canvas. That search can lead to abstract images, but can just as well lead to figurative images, such as the art of Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Modigliani, Joan Miró or Willem De Kooning display. This specific search for the essence of the medium is characteristic for the orthodox Modernism, or Modernism tout court.

A third aspect of the art of the 19th and 20th Centuries would have to do with Modernity itself. That deals with the aspects of the society, the social, economic, political and cultural views that are characteristic for the Western world after the French Revolution. Since the 1960's, art historians such as Timothy Clark have investigated whether and primarily how modern or orthodox modernistic artists have dealed in their work with the precarious social contrasts that are characteristic for this modernity. The New Art History asserts that the modernist character of a work of art is not dependent merely upon formal qualities, but also to the extent in which the work of art functions as social criticism, subversively undermining the established social order. Indeed we often forget what was at stake with the exhibition of a nowadays canonized but then still controversial work of art. The investigation into the social context is thus important, but it is especially difficult to objectively appreciate the subversive level of a work of art and on the basis of this to determine general characteristics for a sort of socially critical modernism.

The French literary historian Antoine Compagnon has recently pointed to a fourth aspect of the art and culture of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and that is an anti-modern undercurrent from Joseph De Maistre to Roland Barthes (Les Antimodernes, de Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes, Paris: Gallimard, 2005). He shows how these intellectuals set themselves against a blind belief in the reason and cultivation or the blessings of social equality. One cannot just call the anti-Moderns reactionary, conservatives or traditionalists. Compagnon deals with writers such as Charles Baudelaire who were, as it were, simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the innovation in the arts and society.

The distinction between Modern Art, the Orthodox Modernism, the subversive intentions and the Anti-Modern undercurrent is important because it shall help us to position and understand the art of Ensor better. This has to do with a theoretical matter. It is a question of motivation and perspective. Thus, in this thesis I have focused myself on source material, Ensor's writings, that has not been systematically investigated up to now, and which has even been neglected. In order to answer the question of whether his art is motivated by modern, modernistic, subversive or anti-modern tendencies, I have followed the advice that Ensor himself gave to the art critic André De Ridder in 1930: "I recommend you to re-read the Écrits de James Ensor, where I explain my investigations and defend my ideas."

Part 1: Reception, Interpretation and Canonising of Ensor's oeuvre (1880-2012): Les XX & La Plume-from WWI to present day)

In the first part of the thesis I show how in the course of the 20th Century, under the influence of the increasing success of Orthodox Modernism, a misleading image of Ensor's art emerges. For critics such as Emile Verhaeren and the many supporters who write about the artist in 1898 in the Paris magazine La Plume, Ensor is in the first place an exceptionally talented practitioner of Pleinairism, Realism or Impressionism. In addition, for these critics he is naturally also special for the way in which he re-discovered and modernised the old grotesque iconography of Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel I and up to and including Francisco Goya.

From the beginning of the 20th Century, artists, critics and art historians gradually move continuously more towards appreciating and investigating the orthodox modernistic character and the subversive intentions of certain components of Ensor's oeuvre. At the same time the appreciation for a significant part of his work diminishes: that is true to a certain point for the work of 1880 to 1885; for all realistic images that Ensor etches and paints after 1885; and for the entire oeuvre from 1895 or 1900. A bit exaggerating one could argue that in this way people confined Ensor within a modernist straitjacket.

Part 2: Ensor's writings as a source for the knowledge of his view on life and his social and artistic perspectives.

Ensor's writings can roughly be subdivided in his exchange of letters (I have made use of some 900 letters of which the large majority are published), and "les écrits", that being his journalistic work, satirical exhibition reviews, comical speeches, words of thanks and praise, and open letters that were published in journals or brochures. The investigation of Ensor's writings is no small task. Ensor gives no care to structure in his writings and constantly jumps from topic to topic. He did indeed, however, have substantial literary ambitions and that appears, inter alia, in "sa phrase superlificoquentieuse", the "wondermiraclelikefulistic language that he uses: archaisms, neologisms, staggering vitriolic rants, hyperboles and other figures of style do not make it simple to merely distill his view on life and his social and artistic perspectives from out of his writings. Although the information that he gives remains limited, Ensor's writings and letters nevertheless appear to be a useful source of knowledge for his opinions.

Crucial for a good grasp of Ensor's vision on the world, the person and the art, is his unbridled desire for "blissfulness", the highest good. The blissfulness for which Ensor longs is a marvelous, surreal state of being, which he invariable sketches in ironic, very concrete hyperboles:

What a beautiful phosphorescent dream: ending in beauty, tenderly embraced by a passionate squid! Situated amongst the cultivated mussels of Ostend and garrulous mermaids, I will surrender myself to the greedy kisses of the animals of the holy water, the earthly water and the seawater.

Karel Van de Woestijne and others, have, incorrectly, tried to incorporate Ensor amongst the believers. Ensor's texts, though, testify to a primarily amused and sometimes sharp position against the Christian faith and the Catholic Church. His texts allow us to determine that he incontrovertibly was an Atheist. However, Ensor was neither a supporter of Positivism. Nor did he believe in a Heaven on Earth. Religion and Science are after all "cruel goddesses, impregnated with tears and blood". In order to make out what the deeper source of things is, what is worth the trouble, one must be lead by feeling, both as good and as wicked as possible. And that is a position that unquestionably brings him close Antione Compagnon's Anti-Moderns.

The artist grows up in a period in which the political contrasts often take on an intense character in Belgium. This is thanks to the school struggle (1879-1884), the establishment of the Belgian Labour Party POB, the social uproar and the repression and the turnout of the so-called Flemish Movement. Ensor has friends among freethinkers, with progressive liberals, with Socialists and with Flemish radicals (Picard, Demolder, Vermeylen), yet Ensor, who becomes a member of the Ostend Rotary Club in 1927, proceeds cautiously with the political oppositions. He mocks "Vlaanderofielen, Geklauwaardiseerde Leliaarts, Morenen, Menapiërs and Belgiërs (freely translated: Flanderophiles, as Flemish lions clawing pro-French Leliards, Morenes, Menapiards and Belgiards), but views with sympathy and amused curiosity the revival of the old, exotic language of the Flemish (which he wrote very poorly, but could speak), though he did not wish that this Dutch revival would cause trouble for the good understanding amongst all Belgians, Walloons and Flemings.

Ensor is no vegetarian, but his heart goes out against the cruel way in which animals are treated. He also mobilises his friends and acquaintances and he pleads with wavering success for the preservation of the small church in Mariakerke, the old tower of the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church in Ostend, the old merchant docks of Ostend and the dunes, and Ensor often decries, desperately: "Oh! Beautiful modernity, what crimes one commits in your name!"

At the artistic level, Ensor defended four basic ideas: (1) the viewer must be "enraptured" by art, it should be a source of "ravishment" for the viewer; (2) being true-to-nature is not the only form that the visual arts must exercise, but is indeed the most important; (3) innovation is an end in  itself; and (4) the exploration of divergent styles, subjects or genres will stimulate artistic innovation and "ecstasy".

The artist gravitates towards a community of like-minded souls. That works of art should have a social function is a flat-out offensive thought for Ensor. Nothing is worse than banality-an artistic transgression that is comparable with the cruelty to animals and the senseless destruction of nature or monuments. In contrast to the banal stand the qualities that he values in Richard Wagner and even with Antoine Wiertz: a magnificent, even grandiloquent vision, passion and poetry. However, in this view, the evocation of the immaterial beauty of the unspoiled dunes in the works of lesser talented artist can also nearly mean as much as the presentation of hideous folly in the work of Bosch, Bruegel or Goya.

Ensor is an adversary of the classical ideal of Beauty, against antiquated artistic conventions, does not believe in objective veracity (according to the academic rules of Art) or the hierarchy of genres. However, being true-to-nature indeed remains for him a decisive criterion for the creation and the appreciation of works of art. When Ensor employs the term "vision" in 1882, he uses it in the first place in the meaning of: way of seeing, a way of perceiving and rendering reality. In his later years, he still continues to believe that the best paintings are made with one eye fixed on the model and the other eye fixed on the colours of the pallete.

Being true-to-nature, however, is also not sufficient. Ensor is indeed an outspoken proponent of "le prestige du nouveau (the prestige of the new)". It is not exaggerating to posit that he is even obsessed by this. The analysis of Ensor's writings show that from another angle he remains insensitive to the ideals of the Orthodox Modernism and when he deals with Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism or Surrealism, it appears in spades that in reality he absolutely does not know what he is actually talking about.

Part 3: Ensor's various artistic projects (conceptual experiments, diverse "manières")

The method to create new and  "ravishing" images, which Ensor defends, is one of being an exploration of diverse "manières", styles, subjects, techniques and genres.

The distinction that David Galenson makes in Young geniuses and old masters, the two life cycles of artistic creativity (2008) between conceptual experiments and  the slow, hesitating search by trial and error for artistic innovation, is thus extremely useful when viewed alongside the analysis of Ensor's pictorial oeuvre. Ensor is, as I have made clear in the third part of the thesis, not only in theory, but also in praxis, an exceptional example of a conceptual artistic innovator.

Generally he departs from an external stimulus. He draws out an idea from contemporaries, historical predecessors or recovers a personal discovery. The first step exists by radicalising this existing fact. Ensor's artistic figure of style par excellence is the "superlative". Modest outline is raised up until the informal, simple seascapes thus become apparently reduced to a nearly abstract image. Next, he explores the various possibilities that a certain artistic project offers. He does not do this by means of remaining seeking by trial and error for the "right" or "best" manner to portray a recurrent element. Ensor conceptualises a specific stylistic, iconographic or technical concept and then proceeds to nearly systematically realise an array of possibilities. He does not feel constrained by conventions. As such, he indeed often gives himself up, such as Robert Rosenblum has asserted, to never-before trodden paths. His quest for "ravishment" often leads him to astonishing and extreme concepts and realisations: the quasi-surreal montages, the art historical parodies, the exploitation of the ambiguous status of the mask are convincing examples of this. That leads to realisations such as The Grotesque Singers (1891) in which Ensor indeed, in a thoroughly orthodox modernistic way, whimsically determines the form. Yet, not one of the astonishing concepts that he developed was for him an introduction to further refine a similar innovation with more patience, in a genuine laboratory-like experimental way. Ensor temporarily explores the possibilities of a specific concept, but when the potential is exhausted according to his taste, he turns away from further attempts and he brings the "series of works" to a close. In the most cases, the touchstone for further exploration is the colour, "ornament of our spiritual wedding".

Ensor was no unbiased proponent of Modernism. Due to his suspicion towards the ideals of the Enlightenment and his doubts about the goodness of man, we can even call him, along with Antoine Compagnon, "Anti-Modern". The social criticism aspects of his illustrative work fit in here with this. We find this again in a number of satirical, grotesque presentations, which we cannot call subversive in the "Modernist" sense that people are wont to give the term. The fact that Ensor carries on much more freely in this sort of works with the rendering of figures and motifs is, according to his compagnons de route, inherent in the genres in question. But, the objective of the Orthodox Modernism escapes Ensor. This appears in the manner in which he applies concepts such as Cubism or Futurism in his own work. The modernistic level of Ensor's work is overestimated. Ensor's art is occasionally modernistic. 

Herwig Todts