James Ensor: Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891, 6¼ by 8½ inches; at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

In its vivid depiction of what appear to be masked carnival revelers, there is an enthralling grotesqueness to the Belgian artist James Ensor’s oil painting The Intrigue (1890). Advancing toward the viewer with bulbous eyes, porcine snouts, and frozen red rictuses, the brightly costumed figures evoke both the camaraderie and the menace of the crowd. The painting had such an enduring effect on the artist Luc Tuymans as a teenager that decades later he made it the centerpiece of the exhibition of Ensor’s work that he has curated for the Royal Academy of Arts.  

Born in 1860 to a British father and Flemish mother, Ensor lived in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend for most of his life, apart from the three years he spent at the fine art academy in Brussels. This rootedness to Ostend, a resort popular in the summer but deserted in the winter, contributed to the creation of a mythology around Ensor as an eccentric loner, misunderstood by the establishment. However, Ensor enjoyed recognition in his lifetime (he was even ennobled by the Belgian king) and influenced the German Expressionists and, later, the Surrealists. Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, and Wassily Kandinsky, among others, visited him in Ostend.

In his curation, Tuymans has played down the cliché of his countryman as a romantic outcast. The show’s sixty-six paintings, drawings, and prints primarily from Ensor’s productive early career include satirical images, landscapes, intimate portraits, and fantastical compositions, underscoring Ensor’s versatility. Tuymans juxtaposes his predecessor’s works with his own painting of a featureless Gille, or clown performer, at Belgium’s historic Binche carnival, while also displaying examples of the wax masks and large ostrich-plume headdresses the Gilles wear. In addition, the show contains two brooding paintings by Léon Spilliaert, a younger contemporary of Ensor’s who was also from Ostend. Tuymans notes in the catalogue that the self-taught, Symbolist-influenced Spilliaert and the classically trained Ensor “pose a fine counterpoint to one another.” 

The exhibition loosely traces Ensor’s evolution from Impressionistic paintings, such as his subdued Afternoon in Ostend (1881), which portrays his mother and sister at tea in an airless bourgeois salon, to his trademark exuberant works featuring masked figures and skeletons. (Ensor’s mother ran a curiosity shop selling masks and chinoiseries, which provided a trove of inspiration for her son.) Ensor’s self-portraits mirror this trajectory, with his Rubenesque Self-portrait with Flowered Hat (1883) giving way to the ironically macabre The Skeleton Painter (1896).

The superb Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring (1891), representing the artist as a fishy morsel tugged between two critics (with “hareng saur” likely being a play on Ensor’s last name), is emblematic of the distinctive, ghoulish style for which Ensor became best known. Painted in a bold palette, Ensor’s flamboyantly sinister masks and skeletons offered a perfect vehicle for parodying fin-de-siècle bourgeois society, and these motifs are among his most powerful. Yet Ensor was also capable of less strident work. His still life The Skate (1892), for instance, brilliantly renders the fleshy texture of the fish, whose folds, flaps, and appendages strongly suggest genitalia. 

Ensor’s Catholic upbringing is reflected in his treatment of religious themes in several works on view. A highlight is his etching The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1895), which transposes Christ into a Mardi Gras procession, where he is barely visible among the throng of masked characters brandishing signs with political and commercial slogans. The intricate detail of the faces and buildings demonstrates Ensor’s extraordinary skill as a draftsman and contrasts with the expressionism of the famous oil version of 1888, owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

By the time Ensor turned forty, his work had become repetitive and at times kitschy. The lurid Christ in Agony (1931), which shows Jesus on a fuchsia cross, and The Winds (1940), in which a man flies through the air expelling gusts of flatulence, prove Tuymans’s focus on Ensor’s early output to be a wise choice. With a light curatorial touch, Tuymans has emphasized the modernity of Ensor’s sardonic vision of a society governed by artifice and intrigue, a vision that feels very relevant today.