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James Ensor's Everyday Macabre


Text by Stephanie Wells

James Ensor’s works on display at the Musée d’Orsay until February 4th, are the painterly equivalent of a firm handshake and mischievous smile.  His fixation on the lighter side of death and fixation with mortality is omnipresent in his painting.  Ensor lived, and depicted, between reality and the afterlife with peculiar ease. He brought skeletons to the attic of his childhood home, dressed them up and painted them with such a vivid palette they seem to be almost living again. Frenetic, joyous, dancing, somber and inquisitive, they all have their place in Ensor’s world. These otherworldly models represented his disgust for the inhumanity of man and his conflict with religion.

Natural light became his representation of spirituality and how he interpreted divinity. Erroneously labeled, in his opinion, an Impressionist, he rejected the movement as soulless. Instead Ensor’s works concentrating on light were deeply personal, yet physically massive and poorly received by the public at the time. Smarting from rejection, his future works would leave little room for translation, reek aggressive sarcasm and flaunt his absurd sense of humor - in a sense, late 19th-century punk rock.

Ensor was incredibly innovative for a man who rarely left Ostend, Belgium. A gifted harmonium player, flautist and composer, his music was nearly as important to him as his art. Contemporary artists, including rock duo They Might Be Giants, and Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara, have paid homage to the Belgian rebel-with-quite-a-cause. His annual Dead Rat Ball is still celebrated in his beloved Ostend. His avant-garde style subsequently influenced Paul Klee, Felix Nussbaum and the surrealist movement of the 20th century. Referencing his love of music, the Musee d'Orsay is presenting a series of concerts and musical workshops of Ensor's compositions and artwork. Irrepressible artist, musician, agnostic, taste maker, composer, activist for creative freedom and a man obsessed with mortality and himself, James Ensor knew how to make an eternal impression.

James Ensor
20th October 2009- 4th February 2010
Musée d'Orsay
1 rue de la Légion d'honneur
Paris 7

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This was one of my favorite exhibits in Paris this year. Terrific article, captures the mood and the man, perfectly. Well done.

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