James Ensor

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The art world is filled with its fair share of rebels and wild artists but they don’t get any scandalous or defiant as in the form of James Ensor. The Belgian painter, draftsman and print maker rose when Belgium was going through a turbulent political and social time. Ensor burst onto the scene with his dynamic and mad creativity; he dabbled in everything from new techniques to old ones, and re-invented them with his own touch. Ensor became the leader of the short-lived, but much hyped avant-garde group Les XX (the Twenty), the aim of the group was to promote new artistic developments throughout Europe. Les XX received a horde of criticism and Ensor – being the rebel that he was – started clashing with other members of the group, soon the group dissolved after a decade. Despite his antics Ensor was a marvellous artist; his innovative and symbolic use of light in his paintings was astonishing. The main factor which made Ensor’s paintings stand out was the strong element of satire in his work; his paintings were almost performance like with his main subject matters often wearing masks. There was a strong part of role playing amongst Ensor’s paintings as well, almost as if he was making fun of something.

James Sidney Edouard was born in 1860 in Ostend, Belgium to a Belgian mother and English-German father. Despite being born to a talented engineer father, James Ensor lacked interest in school and left at the age of 15 and started training with local painters. Many art experts today refer to Ensor as an ‘artist’s artist’ – due to his versatility and reinvention as an artist. His early years as a radical can be due to his devotion to the plein aire movement in Europe, a movement not many artists particularly liked nor were brave enough to delve in. Ensor loved the movements’ influences which were free from aesthetics, literature and moral conventions – basically one painted whatever they wanted to. Ensor was also famous for using a knife for his palettes; he seldom painted with anything else. The reinvention worked bizarrely for Ensor, soon his art morphed into something which was grotesque and brilliant at the same time. Most of his contemporaries had difficulty accepting this new wave of Ensor’s artistic genius. Even today many are still confused when they see an Ensor painting; it’s full of eccentric beauty and filled with psychological connotations. A perfect example of this is has amazing paintings The Intrigue. As the name suggests, the painting certainly does intrigue the viewer, it is filled with his signature light style and features numerous faces wearing masks. There is a clown, a phantom, animal mask and various others. Ensor uses the perfect balance of light colors to generate opaqueness to the painting. What is strange about the painting is that none of the figures are looking in one particular direction and there is sorrow on one mask, ecstasy on another, sadness in one and confusion in the other. What exactly he was trying to achieve through this painting remains a mystery even to this day.

James Ensor considered the mask to be the ultimate instrument of expression, something which a human face cannot hide behind. For him in The Intrigue the figures weren’t wearing masks, they were wearing their true faces. It was his way of revealing the real malicious human face. Despite his radical thoughts and paintings Ensor remains a name which is highly respected.

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