Ensor in Ostend, the rosy view

Ostend (Belgium). The still life is a theater in miniature where the objects, carefully staged by the artist, send to those who look at them the enigma and the evidence of their presence. Still life occupies a very special place in the work of James Ensor (1860-1949). Seeming to comply with the conventions and codes of the genre, the Ostend painter quickly integrated it into his universe by revealing his favorite themes such as masks, skeletons and Chinoiserie, but above all by flooding his canvases with his touch. very particular pictorial where pink radiates like a pearly sun. On the occasion of the celebrations of the “James Ensor” year – punctuated by exhibitions in Antwerp and Brussels – Ostend pays homage to one of its emblematic artists by comparing around fifty of his still lifes with those of his contemporaries and his successors.

In the 19th century, still life lost its moral connotations and religious references to blossom into a demonstrative and academic genre which extended the opulence of the bourgeois interior. At the opening of the exhibition, the monumental canvas Office interior by Jean-Baptiste Robie, a very popular painter at the time, sets the scene: the dark trail of a peacock tumbles towards a fish dish, hiding glassware and silverware in the background. Still life is very popular with women painters, who were then banned from the academy. The exhibition brings some of them out of oblivion. Louise Dubois with her very romantic studio view with a bust veiled in black, Louise De Hem with her Corner of a lady’s boudoir, refined composition with sensual and refined work of materials. There can also be in the still life a melancholic and meditative look at things and time which freezes as in the paintings of Henri De Braekeleer. Others express an overflow, an overflow as in the very modern Vegetables by Willem Linnig II, or David De Noter in his fanciful Workshop of Frans Snijders where it depicts the Baroque painter looking away from a cascade of flowers, fruit, game and vegetables that seem to be spilling from a parallel world. Hubert Bellis is another painter, forgotten today, yet his frontal and stripped-down still lifes of fish or meat exude an unexpected force.

“They are symphonies! »

Ensor painted more than two hundred still lifes, or a quarter of his production. It is for him a pretext to experiment with painting and color. Drawing on shells, Chinoiserie and glassware from his mother’s souvenir store, he creates dreamy, shimmering compositions. Whether he paints a stingray, a chicken, a glass bottle or a bouquet of flowers, it is the inner truth of his subject that interests him and its ability to absorb and return light. Under his brush, a red cabbage has the glow of a lantern and a shell that of a candle. While still life is often distinguished by its frontality, with Ensor, the plans and perspectives tend to dissolve in the shimmering mist of the colored material which serves as their setting.

James Ensor (1860-1949), Shells1936, oil on canvas, 51 x 60 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, La Boverie.

© Gérald Micheels

Without ever approaching abstraction, Ensor freed himself from the obligations of representation. When King Leopold II asked him what his paintings represent, the artist replied: “These are not paintings, Sire, they are symphonies!” »

The precise line of his pencil and charcoal sketches in the drawing room testifies to the evolution and emancipation of his gaze between 1880 and 1886. Bourgeois interiors are gradually parasitized by the appearance of masks in a corner of the room or in the tin of a mirror.

Evolution of still life

The scenography designed by Kris Coremans and Guy Châtel, from the architectural firm ssa/xx, creates a museum within the museum, drawing inspiration from the design of 19th century museums with a central room like an alcove and side galleries. The paintings are presented on poplar panels leaving the entire supporting structure visible.

Like some of his contemporaries, James Ensor embodies the transition between the academicism of the 19th century and the avant-gardes of the 20th. The last stage of the journey shows how the Belgian modernists, Louis Thévenet, Gustave van de Woestyne, Rik Wouters or Léon Spilliaert, and a few others, drew on the vocabulary of still life to develop a personal pictorial language. With Gustave de Smet, Jean Brusselmans, Marthe Donas or Philibert Cockx, reality and logic fade away, swept away by the truth of painting and color. The exhibition ends with The red model a painting by René Magritte with a pair of feet ending in laced ankle boots. A priori not a still life, but it becomes one through the force of the subject.

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