I went to the MoMA today to look at pictures by James Ensor. I had always loved his paintings of masks I’d seen in art history books, but I had no idea just how revolutionary an artist he was. The real revelation to me was his drawings: layered, intricate things that combine various styles of drawing (along a continuum from real to surreal) and disparate subjects on one plane, like exquisitely hand-rendered collages. One of my favorite drawings was this one:
I realize it’s almost impossible to get a sense from this poor-quality image of what the drawing is like, but you can see how the dark fabulous monsters contrast with the more peaceful everyday images done in fainter lines. The drawing is quite small, maybe, I don’t know, 5″ by 3″, so I had to get up very close to see it, and I almost fell in.
The mask paintings were more luscious, weird, and compelling even than I had imagined, very large and brilliantly colored and confrontational. I loved how in some of them the entire space of the canvas was crowded with images of false faces, interspersed with some ‘real’ ones.
Ensor loved crowds, and this strikes me as wonderfully Baudelairean. He had amazing patience in drawing them, and extraordinary imagination as well in making each figure in the crowd stranger than the next.
Plus, oh, did you know? He often depicted himself as a crossdresser! One self-portrait shows him in a perfectly feminine & ridiculous flowered hat.
Satire! Carnival! Ensor! Rescued by these images today from oh the bitterest and broodiest mood…