In the exhibition, Intrigue, at London’s Royal Academy, the face of James Ensor, the Belgian painter who is the subject of this show – curated by Luc Tuymans -appears frequently. It can be seen in a number of self-portraits, some conventional, some, including a ‘self-portrait as a skeleton’, somewhat less conventional. Ensor’s face is superimposed over that of Christ in the study for his famous, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889”. His visage also surfaces in an eerie congeries of ghouls, in the “Self-Portrait Surrounded by Evil Spirits”. It must be said that in this latter work, Ensor depicts himself as looking oddly comfortable in the company of demons. This is perhaps fitting given that Ensor was not without his own interior conflicts and obsessions. He was a painter who, as Tuymans’ introduction to the exhbiition notes, was not given to excessive self-interrogation, but despite this fact, one can detect a distinct sense of self-awareness if not necessarily self-deprecation.
Ensor is frequently cited as a forerunner of the robust Belgian surrealist movement that crystallised in the twentieth century and continues to morph incongruously through to the present. This interpretation of Ensor’s work is entirely reasonable. His taste for the uncanny also prefigures key themes developed in the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition that so deeply informed surrealism. Nevertheless, another undercurrent that emerges from Tuymans’ exhibtion is Ensor’s integration of narrative. Where the surrealists often aggressively sought to decouple representation and narrative – sometimes as a matter of principle – the Ensor works that Tuymans’ includes revel in the narrative possibilities of visual media.
This sense is perhaps appropriate as Tuymans’ text also touches on the dynamics of deception and concealment – “authentic fakery” in his formulation – from which the young Tuymans claims Ensorian inspiration. In some ways, this feels like something of an overinterpretation. There is much concealment and displacement in the works by Ensor that Tuymans presents, but little self-conscious fakery. Often such concealments foster either painterly or essentially literary narratives within the works. The conceptual interpenetration of authenticity and imposture is, however, much more present in the works by other artists included in the exhibition. Guilllaume Bijl’s film, “James Ensor in Oostende ca. 1920”, for instance, employs contemporary video technology to mimic the visual dynamics of early cinema. The film imagines a trip to the beach by Ensor and companions in full early twentieth century dress. Despite its reconstruction of signifiers of turn of the last century film dynamics, its distance and remove lend it a significance made deeper by the tiny divergences detectable between it and genuine 1920s cinema. Authentic, yes; fake, yes, but no less or moreso than a purportedly “faithful” biopic.
The carnival regalia and masks included in the exhibtion, by Karl Kersten and Jean-Luc Pourbaix, respectively, also touch on the themes of authenticity and performativity that infuse Intrigue. If only one gives a person a mask, Oscar Wilde suggested, that person’s true face would be revealed; in the hands of Ensor, however, a mask was merely a new level of obscurity placed over the inherently deceptive human face. It is not fakery as such, but an acknowledgement and embrace of obscurity.
Human beings, in Ensor’s works, are more frequently unmasked by their actions rather than their apperances. Notable particularly are the skeletons who populate as many canvases and drawings as Ensor’s living face itself, indeed, many more. These skeletons have not let anything as banal as death intervene in their humanity. They seek warmth, peruse chinoiseries, and fight over pickled herring just as they would in life, if, perhaps, with even less dignity. And, in this way, Tuymans’ exhibition reveals a further aspect of Ensor’s work: unlike the tendency in canonical surrealism to make the quotidian fantastical, Ensor’s works often situate the fantastical, the phantasmagoric, the impossible in the most quotidian contexts imaginable. Life, even beyond death, the works suggest, is the strangest thing that could ever happen to a person.