New York

James Ensor

Albert Loeb and Krugier

The show of the complete graphic works of James Ensor was remarkable. It didn’t include anything new, and it has all been reproduced by Loys Delteil in volume 19 of Le Peintre-Craveur IIlustré and by Albert Croquez, but I myself had never before seen it all together, and I found its impact quite unexpected. Ensor is certainly the most various of the fin de siècle artists: one can find all the elements that go to make up his work in the production of many other artists of his time—in Munch, Moreau, early Vuillard and early Mondrian, Khnopff—but in these others one finds only one or two of the elements that Ensor was able to fuse into a single style. His is the ultimate synthesis of historicism. It is an interesting fact that when the historicist attitude first began to express itself in art during the second half of the 18th century, the moving forces behind it were the same as at the end of the 19th: a concern with style as a self-conscious manner, an instrument that might be used, but no single manifestation of which was inevitable or even predominant; and secondly, what this instrument might be used for, namely the representation of an immaterial vision, whether this vision was objective and moral (objective in that the moral values were considered as absolute) or subjective and fantastic. But of course since the moral values were viewed as absolute, perhaps the two come down to the same thing.

Ensor, working in what must be recognized as a second period of historicism some hundred years after the first, was faced with analogous needs in an analogous artistic situation; only, he had far more styles to borrow from than the first generation of historicists, and some of the new possibilities were seen by him to be useful far beyond what his contemporaries seem to have imagined. What did he take from the first period of historicism? Historical fantasy, sometimes remarkably close to John Martin (Capture of A Strange Town); baroque classicism (The Magdalene), rather similar all in all to Puvis; a great deal of Gothic, and also of what can be called Umbrian mannerism—in fact, there is a fascinating etching that combines the two, Viollet-le-Duc with Perugino (The Flagellation). There is also much of Rembrandt, and not only in the religious scenes but also in some satirical ones, e.g., (Iston . . . Examining the Stools of Darius). What helped Ensor so much in utilizing the elements of an earlier stylistic repertory was what had occurred between him and then, and in particular realism and fantasy. There had of course been a very strong current of realism in the style of David and Copley, but it had been a factual and reportorial realism. The realism of Barbizon, which is everywhere in Ensor, was not reportorial—as I tried to show several years ago, it was a kind of naturalism that, beneath straightforward appearances, was actually based on a conscious evocation of baroque prototypes—which is to say, once again, a historicism of style! In addition, it was a style that accorded very well with another of the great influences on Ensor, Goya, a late-baroque realist with a very pronounced fantastic vein. Obviously the fantasy fits in very well with a qualified kind of naturalism, a naturalism that depends much less on observation than on the recollection of the forms of the imagination, art forms. And of course it was because Ensor inherited from Baudelaire his conviction of the primary role of fantasy, “queen of the faculties,” and along with this of Baudelairian naiveté, that he could use so extensively the images (traditional images and compositions) of popular art. This last, as pronounced as any of the influences Ensor underwent, has not even begun to be studied with any precision, so while we can see that it was at work and even where it was at work, we do not yet understand just how it worked, which of course is the really interesting question. One specific point I would make in this connection is that its neglect has caused Ensor’s color to be badly misunderstood. There is nothing new about Ensor’s color. It is the color of Monet’s Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral series. (cf. The Cathedral, 1886 and 1896)—which is to say, appropriately enough, of Monet when he was moving from naturalism toward a kind of imaginative interpretation of sensation; and I think it is simply the novelty of the combination of these colors and these images that has prevented people from realizing this.

The major task if we are ever to understand Ensor is perfectly clear: we have to allow for the working of a very strong individual temperament while at the same time giving their proper place to the period elements in his work, the elements he shares with his contemporaries. Only Ingrid Langaard’s work on Munch begins to do this for any artist of Ensor’s generation; but Ensor would seem to offer more fertile terrain than Munch. No doubt the period elements will be overemphasized as this kind of study advances, but personally I think this will be a useful corrective to the approach that has prevailed so far.

Jerrold Lanes