A critical view of the world

Seen through the unrelenting eyes of Belgian painter James Ensor (1860-1949), the world is a macabre carnival, a place filled with paranoia and cruelty. Ensor employed his extraordinary imagination to satirize the reality in which he lived, along with all its bourgeois conventions. His etchings, a medium which he loved and in which he excelled, offer some of the most inspired criticisms of the world in the history of art. «James Ensor: L’oeuvre grave,» an exhibition being held at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum, puts on view more than 100 masterpiece etchings by the artist, all from the collection of Belgium’s KBC Bank. The exhibition is curated by Xavier Tricot and Martha Chalikia and is structured in themes such as portraits, scenes from the life of Jesus, scenes from the Bible and caricatures. Ensor held the art of etching in special esteem and once refered to it as «spicy art of alchemy and distillation.» Making prints could also bring closer to fulfilment his wish of having his art reach as many people as possible long after he had died. Skeletons, masks, people distorted in hideous caricatures and the figure of Christ, a prominent subject in Ensor’s work, compose a fiercely critical view of society as captured in «Christ’s Entry into Brussels,» perhaps Ensor’s most famous painting. An etching based on the painting is one of the exhibition’s highlights. Among the most haunting images in the Benaki exhibition is «Christ Tormented by Demons,» a depiction of Christ on the cross being devoured by a skeleton-like creature. «Summer Baths in Ostend» satirizes the growing industrialization and rapidly changing face of his hometown, a popular destination among the aristocracy in the late 19th century. There is also an entire series with views of Ostend, all of them images filled with poetry and beauty. «The Revenge of Hop-Frog» shows Ensor’s fascination with literature, in this case, the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The paradox and imagination in his work justify the surrealists who viewed Ensor as their forerunner. Ensor believed that reason is an enemy of art. He led a rather secluded life and his work stirred much controversy. At the turn of the century however, his reputation grew and his work became the subject of large exhibitions. The Benaki exhibition offers a taste of the astonishing and daring work of a great master. «James Ensor: L’oeuvre grave,» at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos, tel 210.345.3111) is running through November 29.