The Belgian Coast has a lot more to offer than you may think. There are pleasant walking and bicycle tours. And there’s Belgian art! The third and last museum is the James Ensor House in Ostend. Be most welcome and step into Ensor’s world!
‘I think, I am an extraordinary painter,’ Ensor wrote in 1899. Talking about self-knowledge. Because today the works by the master painter of Ostend rank at the top end of the international market. The critics of the old days are hereby silenced.
Anything but a classic museum
If you’re particularly interested in the oeuvre of the artist, it is advisable to combine your visit to the James Ensor House with a visit to the Mu.ZEE, since the Ensor House is anything but a classic museum with an exhibition organized around a theme. James Ensor actually lived and worked here.
The house and souvenir shop in the Vlaanderenstraat originally belonged to his uncle and aunt. But after his mother and auntie passed away Ensor inherits the house. And in 1917 the bachelor moves in with his loyal manservant August Van Yper and his wife. By then, Ensor was already 57 years old. The shop closes its doors, but out of respect for the past he leaves everything untouched. Ensor will live here until his death in 1949.
Invited to coffee
Just entering the shop lets you experience the charm and the character of the past. The display cabinets filled with masks, shells and other knick-knacks make you want to look around and explore. And as if Ensor were at home, his long black coat and top hat are hanging on the coat stand in the back. Almost as if I’m invited to coffee.
James Ensor is born in Ostend on 13 April 1860. He is the son of a British father and Belgian mother. After several failures, his father takes refuge in alcohol. It is his mother who feeds the family. She, her brother and her sister continue their parent’s souvenir shops. The family runs several shops in Ostend and Blankenberge. They sell shells, porcelain, Chinese vases and Korean teapots, coral from Naples, jewelry from Alger, stuffed animals, and during carnival masks. But it’s mostly the masks and the chinoiserie that fascinate Ensor. Both are therefore very much present in the artworks of the artist.
Shack of short-sightedness
In 1877 Ensor enrolls at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Totally disillusioned, Ensor leaves after three years the Académie or the ‘shack of short-sightedness’ as he calls it. The ongoing destructive criticism have become too much. ‘I’m ridiculed, completely torn down! An ordinary cabbage is shameful from now on!’ writes Ensor. He feels misunderstood and returns to his beloved Ostend. ‘Here is where I get quiet, on the edge of the country, with one foot in the sea,’ so he says. But Ensor will still regularly return to Brussels.
A wooden staircase leads to the first floor where Ensor lived and worked. In the blue saloon and the dining room, with original furniture, Ensor received friends and family. Paying a visit to Ensor was always accompanied by a series of rituals. Each visitor had to wait ten minutes in the shop before going upstairs. And once on the first floor, one got completely sucked into Ensors fantasy world with numerous paintings, Chinese vases, masks, books and other knick-knacks. Or you were welcomed with music, with Ensor playing the harmonium.
The eye-catcher in the dining room is a photo of ‘The Oyster Eater’* (1882). Ensor depicts his sister Mitche as a young bourgeois woman feasting on oysters and wine, what was considered inappropriate at the time. The painting was rejected by several salon juries, because it was considered immoral. ‘The Oyster Eater’ is a sequel to ‘The Bourgeois Salon’*, depicting life of the narrow-minded aristocracy. Ensor worshipped light. The red, yellow and orange tints create the illusion of sunshine.
Messiah of modern art
Although his mother is unable to see the talent of her son, he is allowed to use a small room in the attic on the fifth floor above the shop as his studio. Ensor was twenty years old at the time. Eight years on he creates his masterpiece ‘Christ’s Entry Into Brussels’ (1889). The work is so tall that the ceiling height wasn’t sufficient, and the lower part had to be rolled up. The painting shows Christ entering the city of Brussels on a donkey, warmly welcomed by a large audience, a fanfare and a colourful parade of masked figures. The Christ figure is Ensor himself. Like Christ, he feels humiliated and ridiculed. But he also sees himself as the Messiah of modern art with Brussels as the centre of Belgian art and art criticism. In fact, Ensor takes on politics, religion, art circles, high society and society in general.
Ensor will never part with the canvas. More than thirty years, he keeps the rolled-up painting in the attic. It wasn’t until Ensor moved to the Vlaanderenstraat that he displayed Christ’s Entry prominently above the harmonium in his living room, the blue saloon. Today, a reproduction hangs in the room. This may sound less impressive, yet it leaves a strong and haunting impression on the visitor.
Three times, it leaves the room for an exhibition. In 1929, Ensor copies the design for a tapestry. But the realization seems to difficult and expensive. Eventually, the tapestry was made in 2010 entirely through private initiative and provided to the Mu.ZEE under a permanent loan. The original masterpiece, however, can be seen in the Paul Getty Museum in California, United States.
Plenty of Fantasy
Ensor’s fantasy knows no bounds. So he adds elements to finished paintings such as masks, skulls and devils. A self-portrait suddenly has a jolly flower hat, a little devil annoys a dozed off auntie, and an old lady all of a sudden has a moustache and stubble. Is this meant to be a joke? Or is there more to it than that? It is Ensor’s way to tackle criticism, and to prove his genius.
Ensor was also a gifted printmaker. He starts making prints after a series of dark interiors didn’t catch on. Maybe etches could? In his best year he makes about 40 etches.
Finally Ensor receives the long-awaited recognition. In 1929 there is a retrospective exhibition in Brussels with almost 800 of his works. The show also attracts international attention. Ensor enjoys every second. Not surprisingly, he spends a lot of time consuming all the newspaper articles of himself. One year later, his beloved Ostend honours him with a bust. And King Albert I of Belgium confers him the title of Baron.
From November 15 onwards, the Ensor House will temporary close its doors to complete an ambitious renovation. The museum will be expanding with a gallery devoted to Ensor’s etchings. In the autumn of 2018, the James Ensor House will welcome back visitors.
The James Ensor House is open from Wednesday until Monday, from 10:00 until 12:00 am and from 14:00 until 17:00 pm. Entrance fee: 2 euros.
*The original works can be seen at The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.