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T. J. Clark on James Ensor


In the London Review of Books, T. J. Clark writes about the strange and strangely political work of James Ensor, on the occasion of a major exhibition of the painter’s work at the Royal Academy in London. Clark draws a connection between Ensor’s work and his anarchist politics, as well as his abiding admiration for Edgar Allen Poe, whose fiction he explored in many of his painting. Here’s an excerpt:

Ensor is one of the strangest artists to have emerged from a socialist and anarchist milieu – stranger even than Platonov or Pasolini. That socialism of some sort was the context that mattered in his case is clear. The first serious piece of writing about him appeared in 1891 in the socialist journal La Société nouvelle, published in Paris and Brussels: it was written by a novelist friend, Eugène Demolder. When Demolder followed up with a short book a few months later it was titled James Ensor, la mort mystique d’un théologien. (The great Verhaeren, poet of the revolutionary crowd, lent his name to a second monograph in 1908.) You have to work hard to find Demolder’s 1892 subtitle acknowledged in the art-historical literature, but it is important, and only half ironical. In Belgian socialism at fin de siècle, Christ and La Sociale (the anarchists’ codeword for the coming social revolution) were inseparable. Demolder in La Société nouvelle has Ensor’s Christ ‘step down into the crowd and slap the ridiculous bishop with his stigmatised hands’. There is a ferocious Man of Sorrows in the show, painted the same year as Demolder’s essay, whose Christ seems fully capable of doing the job. He is best looked at in tandem with a panel hung nearby, also dated 1891, titled Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring. No doubt the panel’s strip-cartoon pessimism is all-encompassing – ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ – but at the same time it resonates specifically with Ostend and class struggle. Ostend in the late 19th century (it was Ensor’s home, and he rarely stirred far from the place) shared its bathing beaches with a hard-scrabble fishing industry – it was Bognor with a large dash of Grimsby. In August 1887 fish packers set on three English boats trying to undersell the locals, and gendarmes shot dead six or more of the rioters, wounding scores of others (the numbers are disputed) before order returned. There is a drawing at the Academy called The Strike, but its first title seems to have been Le Massacre des pêcheurs ostendais. Notice that one of the skeletons in the Pickled Herring picture is sporting a busby. Ensor did a painting in 1892 of fishermen’s wives warming themselves over individual braziers shoved under their skirts, in a room as wintry and miserable as the room in Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man; naturally, skull people peer in through a window. One of them carries a heartless placard: ‘A Mort! – Elles ont mangé trop de poisson.’

Image: James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man, (1891). Via LRB.