Nika and I went to MoMA yesterday to see the James Ensor show, which is not overwhelming or without interest, but puzzles more than it pleasures.
Did he just go a bit dotty at the end? No - not at the end. At some fairly early point? No one seems ready to say. His public behavior as he became a national institution was respectable enough. As to what went on his head - no one knows. But he wasn't productive.
That's the first thing that struck me about the James Ensor show at MoMA: the paintings begin well enough with some promising but hardly unusual impressionists from the early 1880s (he was born in 1860). North Sea skies, gobs of paint close up, reveal their restless beauty when viewed at an angle or from across the room. Studies of his father reading a newspaper, his sister sewing, might be Renoir or Vuillard. As for the skies - yes, he knew Monet, had crossed the Channel for a peek at Turner in the Tate. The influence of Whistler is everywhere: gray on gray.
But also there is something antic, something that does not fit: self-portrait in a flowered hat (with peacock feather), say. Or a confrontation of two figures in carnival masks. Or one figure (often Ensor himself) surrounded by, assaulted by, skulls or masks or figures wearing them. The show explains: His mother kept a souvenir shop downstairs; carnival masks were a major item. He was surrounded by them all his life, filling his nightmares (of which clearly he had many) and his ambitious dreams. He also loved satirical cartoons, of which the 1880s-90s were a golden age. His politics at this point were anarchic left: down with everything. But he found he disliked his fellows (except for one or two good friends) quite as much as he disliked the folks in power.
A drawing of his aunt, asleep in her oh-so-proper Belgian lace and black, impeccable bonnet and corseted figure (such ladies were common enough on Ostend streets as late as the 1950s), but surrounded by hideous masks making faces, filling her dreams (or Ensor's own troubled, antisocial fantasies). A Temptation of St. Anthony with Ensor as the hallucinatory saint. Christ entering Brussels, met by a brass band but the onlookers paying no attention. Was Ensor a wounded mystic or did he identify with the scorned Christ or was he just unable to find a proper direction for his art? His boasted desire to paint light turns up very little in the way of exquisite exploration, at a time when Van Gogh was already dead and Monet was still fantasticating and to the current young crowd (Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Gris) Ensor must have seemed undistinguished and old hat.
But the big mystery is: why all this creativity in the 1880s, much less in the 1890s and not a damn thing after 1900. He lived till 1949. He was an eminent figure, ennobled and awarded by his country, trotted out as a living institution, perfectly sane - just utterly unproductive. Art had gone its way; it did not renew Ensor. He was over and out well before he turned forty. Does he have a place in the saga of Modern Art? Yes. Is it an important, productive, ineffaceable place? No. You can skip him and you'll hardly miss a thing.
He painted up there to keep his hands and his eyes busy, and maybe to stave off demons in masks. He wasn't painting for us at all.
Note: The mask is a curious artifact, and it interested Ensor far more than faces did. He did very good impressionist faces, but they did not fascinate him. People doing one thing, living one soul, while wearing the face of something else - that interested him. But he did not find an art where he could make something important out of this discovery.