PRINT March 2022

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James Ensor, Peste dessous, peste dessus, peste partout (Plague Above, Plague Below, Plague All Around), 1904, etching with watercolor and crayon, 7 1⁄2 × 11 1⁄2".

DEPENDING ON HOW you look at things, contemporary satire is experiencing either a golden age or a period of impotence. Never in recent memory have public figures acted like such buffoons. But comedians have the unenviable task of making fun of people who are already caricatures of themselves. How to parody someone whose persona already amounts to a malicious burlesque?

It was in this general mood of resignation and despair that I visited the recent James Ensor exhibition at Gladstone Gallery’s uptown space in New York, and to my pleasant surprise I left with a slightly renewed sense of hope for the power of humor in art.

A contemporary of the Neo-Impressionists and Symbolists who belonged to neither group, Ensor reached his artistic maturity in 1880s Belgium and was, along with Daumier, one of the first European artists since Goya to respond to the crises of modernity with laughter, in the deepest sense of the word. Known primarily for his gargantuan masterpiece L’entrée du Christ à Bruxelles (Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889), 1888, where the painter’s full arsenal is on display—masked figures, acid colors, a jarring clash of fantasy and reality, the depiction of the urban crowd—Ensor only exhibited this summa of his work in 1929, when he was sixty-eight. One of the benefits of the Gladstone show, besides providing an intimate setting in Edmund Durell Stone’s old apartment (whose elongated yet elegant proportions resemble those of a Belgian town house), was to showcase what Ensor was known for in his own lifetime, a wildly inventive and diverse body of work in smaller-scale drawing, etching, and painting.

Ensor’s persistently corporal distortions and scatological imagery are not limited to evildoers. They apply to everyone, because for him they constitute a utopian condition.

What struck me immediately was an acerbic visual wit that spared no one, not even fellow artists, family, or friends. A small etching, peste dessous, peste dessus, peste partout (Plague Above, Plague Below, Plague All Around), 1904, based on a photograph of Ensor’s friends, is a case in point. The original image depicts a congenial gathering, but the print imagines an unconcerned public expelling clouds of virus into the air with little regard for the nearby (masked!) barefoot woman carrying a child who has seemingly succumbed to the plague. The blatant disregard for public health by those with means—and the inordinate burden shouldered by those without them—could not have been made clearer. Many of Ensor’s mockeries of late-nineteenth-century Belgian society are equally pertinent today, almost three-quarters of a century after his death in 1949. His grotesque portraits of judges, gendarmes, and doctors could be easily replaced with the faces of today’s Supreme Court justices, policemen, and anti-vax “experts” without losing any of their biting force.

The comic in Ensor extends well beyond timely social critique. Theorists of laughter from Baudelaire to Bakhtin have argued against reducing humor to contemporary satire. For one, jokes about current events can become meaningless once the events in question are no longer current (although they can feel relevant again when circumstances, such as a pandemic or a broken judiciary, return). But more important, topical humor implies the superiority of the lampooner over the lampooned. To use Baudelaire’s example, we may laugh at someone who trips and falls, but only because we ourselves retain our footing. For post-Romantic thinkers, such aloofness was symptomatic of the introverted and detached irony of the modern city dweller.

James Ensor, M et Mme Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko (Mr. and Mrs. Rousseau Speaking with Sophie Yoteko), 1892, oil on panel, 4 3⁄4 × 6 3⁄8".

For sure, there is political commentary aplenty in Ensor, but interwoven into his oeuvre is another kind of comedy, a tradition of folk humor dating back to the Middle Ages. Historically, the carnivalesque, according to Bakhtin, engendered a less divisive, more collective form of laughter. In the medieval counterculture of the carnival, people still laughed at others. But they also laughed with them, because everyone laughed at and with themselves. And that was OK. Laughter was universal and endemic to a culture in which, for a short period before Lent, the world was turned upside down and inside out: Devils became kings, beggars became priests, the everyday became the ceremonial, the poor became the rich, ridicule became praise, and sorrow became joy. In fact, such overturning of norms was necessary for the survival of culture because it opened possibilities usually denied to the populace by official rules and regulations.

The preponderance of skeletons and pantomime characters in Ensor’s work is evidence of this carnival spirit. So, too, is the grotesque element. Among the things that drew Bakhtin to the French writer Rabelais were the abundant references in the latter’s writing to exaggerated and deformed bodies, with a frequent focus on the digestive and excretory functions, locomotion, and materiality—everything below the belt, as it were. Ensor’s persistently corporal distortions and scatological imagery are not limited to evildoers. They apply to everyone, because for him they constitute a utopian condition in which identity is constantly in flux and resistant to the forces of repression. Corrupt officials may have gruesome faces, but so do Ensor and his patron friends in an almost touching triple portrait from the exhibition in which the artist appears in drag, M et Mme Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko (Mr. and Mrs. Rousseau Speaking with Sophie Yoteko), 1892.

James Ensor, Les bains d’Ostende (The Baths of Ostend), 1891–99, etching with watercolor and ink, 8 3⁄8 × 10 1/2".

In Ensor, the primary mode of the carnivalesque is the mask, which combines bodily exaggeration with the tropes of becoming and ambivalence. Like the grotesque body, the mask is not static and instead is composed of morphing protuberances and nooks. A mask can be an alternate identity and, in diametric opposition, an avatar of the “real” person behind it, their “true” self. The emotions the mask evokes are equally dual-natured. A fake face can be both an object of ridicule and a source of joy.

Yet what ultimately gives Ensor’s art its vitality is the convergence, if not the clash, of the two different models of public life on view within it, the medieval carnival and the modern crowd. In Ensor’s time, the representation of the urban multitude was a relatively new phenomenon and took the form of a scene of the official parade, of bourgeois leisure, or of class revolt. In all three cases, the individual was effaced: subordinated to the state, lost in the crowd, consumed by the mob. Ensor learned important lessons from Breughel, Rembrandt, and Goya about how to pictorially organize such groupings. But he also took from those artists a sense of the individuality-within-collectivity of the marketplace festival and made it proliferate within the anonymous modern mass. At the festive end would be his drawing of tourists bathing at coastal Ostend (where Ensor lived for most of his life, working at one point in a studio above his family’s shop, which sold masks for carnival). In a scene straight out of Where’s Waldo?, tiny figures cavort across the page, some of them bumping bums while others fart into the sea. In contrast, at his most explicitly political, Ensor depicted police in the same town intervening in a dispute (eerily reminiscent of one of Brexit’s major debates) over fishing rights between Belgian and English boatmen.

James Ensor, Alimentation doctrinaire (Doctrinal Nourishment), 1889–95, colored etching, 7 1⁄8 × 9 3⁄8".

I don’t think Ensor was so naive as to actually believe in the comeback of carnival in its traditional form. But neither did he take comfort in either the contemporaneous mysticism of Gauguin or the unrelenting scientism of Seurat, both of whom exhibited with Les XX, the artists’ group Ensor helped found. The heterogeneity of folk humor, its serious playfulness, lived on in his art, not simply in his satires of the world around him but in his nonconformist attitude, as one would expect of an anarchist. Thus, most refreshingly, his work mocks those for whom one would have expected him to have the most sympathy. The artists of Les XX were taken to task for being too easily enthralled by pointillism. Though Ensor’s salacious print Alimentation doctrinaire (Doctrinal Nourishment), 1889–95, depicts the leaders of the state, the church, and the military defecating into a street teeming with people, the artist does not identify wholeheartedly with the victimized crowd. On the contrary, the masses eagerly consume the bullshit being fed to them by those in power. Even today, Ensor has the last laugh.

Paul Galvez is a research associate at the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas. His book Courbet’s Landscapes: The Origins of Modern Painting (Yale University Press) is forthcoming this spring.