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James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 8 1/2".

James Ensor

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 8 1/2".

AMONG THE FOUNDERS of modern Western art, James Ensor created work that stands out as an indictment of bourgeois society—to a point of scathing derision. While many advanced artists kept their distance from the subject of the tawdry capitalist present, he took it on. This was in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend, in the 1880s, where Ensor painted in a studio above his family’s curiosity shop. There—still in his twenties—he developed an insolence of pictorial statement comparable to his anarchist sympathies in politics. Figures of authority were his special bêtes noires, while Jesus/Ensor, a personage who makes occasional appearances in his paintings and drawings, comes across as a rather fluorescent character. How much there was to condemn in the Belgian order of the day: King Leopold II’s rape of the Congo, the exploitation of wretched miners as well as other

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