Drawn and Quartered

Influenced as he is by Bosch, Brueghel, and his countryman Félicien Rops, Ensor doesn't come out of nowhere. He is Goya without the profundity or the suffering, Rembrandt without the immense love and mystery, Toulouse-Lautrec without Paris. Because of the way he renders his roiling world, however, Ensor is proto practically everything that follows. He is the uncle of us all. His tendency toward morbidity, childishness, spectacle, and irony anticipates Kafka, Klee, Kurosawa, and Kippenberger respectively. Neither an Impressionist nor a Symbolist exactly, Ensor—who really wanted to be an artist-provocateur like Courbet or Manet—is among the first great messy painters and leads inexorably to Expressionism. His doodleyness and linearity remind us of Miró, Oyvind Fahlstrom, and Jim Nutt, while his armageddon battle scenes are pure Henry Darger. Both the way Ensor juxtaposes unrelated objects and the way he sunders time and space pave the way for Surrealism. His quest for the id and his proclivity for all-overness presage abstract expressionism. His patchwork composition portends artists like Rauschenberg, Polke, and Basquiat, while his intoxicated, comic book style and sexual imaginings predict everyone from Peter Saul and Jim Shaw to Amy Sillman and Carroll Dunham.

Ensor is all about throngs, sleaziness, and frenzy: Doctrinaire Nourishment (1889).
“Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor”/The Drawing Center
Ensor is all about throngs, sleaziness, and frenzy: Doctrinaire Nourishment (1889).


Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor
The Drawing Center
35 Wooster Street
Through July 21

Ensor feels modern to us because he is. Ensor wanted to astonish, to make it new, and to be an art star. He wasn't beyond grandstanding. His art can feel gratuitous, affected, showy, and limited. You can find yourself spacing out, looking for the daffy bits, or playing private games of Find the Skeleton. Between these moments, however, Ensor can and does amaze.

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