As a rule Expressionists are gloomy people who rarely smile, and only with an effort. Ensor, however, is a genial Expressionist; even of death he makes a jest. His art reminds us of those sumptuous Still Lifes painted by his Flemish forerunners, in which upon a table piled with good fare, one sees a skull (hence the name vanitas for a picture of this kind).
For Ensor painting is not the handmaid of any utopian vision. He uses it for gently scolding a world whose imperfections he discerns, but of which he never can quite despair. While Redon invents a private and peculiar wonderland, Ensor is always under the spell of his own childhood, which, fortunately perhaps, has for him no spurious "glamour." No doubt it was peopled by the most attractive fairies, but there were also spiders, ogres, even macabre stuffed Chinese. In short the fairyland of which he has the freedom is highly realistic. And his robust health has seen him cheerfully through a life that was by no means "roses all the way," up to the comfortable age of ninety.
Belgian painter of English and Flemish parentage, born in Ostend, 1860; died there, 1949. Except for a stay in Brussels, Ensor never left his native town, thus showing his indifference to the schools, aesthetic doctrines, and artists of this day. All the same, his early works show certain influences, such as Degas, Manet, Renoir, the Symbolists, and particularly Turner. To his father, who was of British origin, he possibly owned his fidelity to the real, even in the realm of the imagination, and that truculent vitality which seem derived from his more northern ancestry. In any event, it is the combination that characterizes Ensor's expressionism and clearly differentiates if from the popular and rustic tendencies of a Van den Berghe, a Gustave de Smet, or a Permeke. Lamps ( 1880), The Rower ( 1883), are of clearly Flemish inspiration; The Living Room ( 1881) would not have been disowned by the Parisian intimistes. Carnival on the Beach ( 1887) has the characteristic Ensor flavour, his ardour, his predilection for the fantastic, his lyricism, his creamy medium which diffuses as pallid light crossed by glittering flashes of clear yellows and vermilions. In 1888 he painted his most important and bestknown canvas, Entrance of Christ into Brussels, about three yards by four, a work which is at the same time burlesque and grandiose, a saraband of baroque forms and strident colours, a disordered, tumultuous, vulgar but thoroughly alive composition. In a flaming riot of reds, blues and yellows (these yellow are now dull), one can see yelling crowds, processions of masqueraders, surges of hilarious faces, streamers flapping in the wind, and brass bands parading. The work teems with grimacing faces, monstrous legions, exaggerated gestures, and rattling bones, confirming his lineal descent from Breughel and Hieronymus Bosch. He had a taste for farce, for extravagance and caricature, and to this he sacrificed cohesion, construction, purity of form and accurate tonal harmonies. However, Ensor is a true painter. No matter how dissonant his colours may be, they have a destiny, a brilliance, a distinctiveness, which the other Belgian painters certainly lack. When he wanted to, he could show that he was an informed and original draughtsman, particularly in some of his admirable etchings and drypoints: The Cathedral, Fantastic Ball, Kermesse at the Mill, Death Pursuing the Humans. The best of his work was accomplished between 1888 and 1892. for this artist, who lived to the age of eightynine, had said everything he had to say in five years, at the end of the last century. Decline set in immediately. Old age left him still clownish, but without any creative strength. He expended his imagination on his eccentric subjects and themes rather than on the search for a personal art.