"James Ensor," June 28-Sept. 21, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street New York, N.Y. 10019
James Ensor looked like the children’s character Lemony Snicket. His self-portraits, the centerpiece of a retrospective opening at the Museum of Modern Art, are the jumping off point of a fantastic hodgepodge of bad painting, half-baked influences, droll asides, stunning miniatures and all-around eccentricity that fascinates when it doesn’t repel one’s good taste.
I would be remiss not to begin with the 1882 portrait of Ensor’s best Belgian friend, the artist Willy Finch, a fellow who resembled Manet, done in the style of Manet. From the same period, The Lady in Distress is a voluptuous study of a dark beauty laid back on a tall porte-manteau which, forgive me, reminded me precisely of Neda, the martyr of Iran.
Afternoon in Ostend depicts two sour ladies at tea, built up with the palette knife in blocks of dour green and red, anachronistically resembling Nicholas de Stael. A charcoal-and-chalk self-portrait shows Ensor wryly pointing at himself with a bony finger thrust backwards from the foreground. These self-referential gestures crescend as one tours the show. Ensor’s early still-lifes are painfully ordinary, and his first salon reject, The Oyster Eater tritely assembled layers of comestibles in the style of Chinoiserie.
Then, a breakthrough, and a bad one at that: Adam and Eve Expelled from the Garden, an awful mix of William Blake and cheap Impressionism in which God appears as a giant squid enveloping the sun. The freaky-deaky The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse begins a trend: The whole potpourri of Ensor’s efforts on view tends to reduce the ominous vibe of Ensor’s most familiar prop, the rowdy death masks, to mere child’s play. A line of self-portraits emerge from the closet of Goya, although a 1888 etching of a skeletal Ensor titled, My Portrait in 1960 typifies some of the daft pleasures dotting this weird wreck of a show.
Christ Calming the Storm is a further abortion of Blake with colors and paint-handling that would embarrass any mediocre high school dawber, but the tiny M and Mme Rousseau speaking with Sophie Yotecko is an absolute gem of drawing and character portrayal. You will find yourself scratching your head at the influences and resemblances: Hogarth permeates many of the gagging heads and social studies. Ensor never had a style, a subject or a purpose as he careened like the Grand Guignol wielding a club instead of the delicate brush.
Like De Chirico and Munch, Ensor’s checkered painterly practice endured for decades. By 1937, he summarizes the broad joke of his own career in Self-Portrait with Masks. He has become a white-haired gnome laughing at himself under a cascade of fortuitous funnies. Ensor ends up as a comic artist with all the irrelevance and low imagery that implies. If the Sunday Funnies are your esthetic touchstone, this is the show for you.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).