Like many other artists of the macabre, James Ensor was a misfit toy: he spent most of his days living above the curio shop owned by his parents in Ostend, Belgium. After his parents prevented him from marrying in the mid 1880s, his art turned from darkly shaded to bizarre and morbid.
His life was hardly limited to madness and reculusion, however. He was well regarded by contemporaries – especially the Expressionists, was regularly exhibited, and received a number of honors from his home country late in life. Here again, a dark visionary found a welcoming home amongst the Expressionists and the turn of the Century European Avant Garde.
One of the things that distinguishes Ensor’s work is his use of satire and direct criticism, usually directed towards the contemporary Art establishment. Demons Tormenting Me (above) hints at paranoia, as the artist stands before his tombstone, pulled at from all sides by grotesque spirits. Other works are more direct, such as Doctrinaire Nourishment (not shown) which depict authority figures crapping directly onto the masses.
One of Ensor’s better known works is Scandalized Masks (below). Ensor’s family shop sold carnival masks and he incorporated them frequently into his works. Here you have traditional Punch and Judy images transformed into a dark tableau with overtones of alcoholism and domestic abuse.
Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man (bottom) combines two of Ensor’s favorites: skeletons and masks. Two skeletal hags stand over the desiccated form of a clown, with a crowd of leering, masked intruders pressing into the room.
Ensor was an influence on Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee, and others, and was an important innovator at an important time in art history. He didn’t do it with pretty pictures of marigolds or abstract canvases of bright colors; he made his mark with a cramped view of a world populated with grotesque masks and grinning revenants.