While the KMSKA undergoes a massive refurbishment the Ensors in the Antwerp collection have travelled the world. They've been to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London, to Oslo, Tokyo and Basel and now, for one year, a selection has returned to the city where they were produced.
Mu.ZEE's Mieke Mels: “It’s a unique opportunity to admire some of the best of James Ensor. A son of Ostend, recognition came late in his home town. He was a modernist, who wasn't interested in producing conventional, rosy pictures. The Antwerp collection is a significant one. It includes many early works. The Antwerp Fine Arts Museum on the Zuid had only opened in the 1890's. It was keen to make innovative choices. The art circle 'Kunst van Heden' (Art of Today) steered by the Franck Brothers fêted Ensor early on and donated many of his works to the KMSKA. In 1927 the KMSKA acquired the Ensors purchased by Dr Albin and Emma Lambotte. They had championed the Ostend artist from early on. "
"Enthusiasm for James Ensor in Antwerp contrasted sharply with a lack of interest by the art establishment in his native Ostend. James Ensor was a radical, far ahead of his time, while the tastes of the Ostend art establishment were still petit bourgeois, conservative and opposed to innovation. Recognition here came late in the day, in the Twenties, when Ensor had become an international star and by then prices had shot through the roof.
Mieke Mels: “James Ensor was keen to explore all genres, all techniques, and all modes of representation and continued to experiment to an advanced age. His goal was to enrapture the viewer. The exhibition takes its name from mother-of-pearl, a substance that reflected all the colours and hues of the sea. Ensor's works were very diverse. He's the painter of masks, a painter of sarcastic criticism, but also a painter of still lifes, interiors and landscapes.”
The exhibition opens with two self-portraits of the artist in his studio. One is particularly arresting. 'The Skeleton Painter' shows the artist in the guise of a skeleton. This painting is mirrored by a blown up photograph of the artist at work in his Ostend studio that can be seen against one of Mu.ZEE's walls. A video later in the exhibition reveals how the works surrounding Ensor in this painting of his studio have all been identified and represent the creme of his work.
Art critic Emile Verhaeren, artist Constantin Meunier and their contemporaries saw in Ensor, the great painter of still lifes. Witness this magnificent work from 1880, “The Skate”.
Ensor's landscapes include quasi abstract evocations of the luminous mists above the sea, fantastic landscapes often with a religious note and his famous panoramas including 'The Rooftops of Ostend (below).
On his return from the art academy in Brussels where his modernist approach was at odds with the prevailing tide, he completed over a dozen depictions of women in bourgeois settings. These have been interpreted by some as a condemnation of petit bourgeois life in Ostend, though author Eugène Demolder insists these are fictional scenes depicting the usually peaceful and happy existence of anonymous, graceful young ladies as in 'The Bourgeois Salon' (detail). This work has recently been cleaned and the results are stunning.
'Dreams of Mother-of-Pearl' also sheds light on research undertaken as part of the Ensor Research Project. Works by James Ensor from the collections of the KMSKA, the Mu.ZEE, the Ghent Fine Arts Museum MSK and a private collection have all been examined using a selection of photographic techniques. The aim is to discover more about James Ensor's creative process through advanced imaging technology: PXRF scans and the use of X-rays, infrared and ultraviolet light. The project will conclude with an exhibition dedicated to Ensor's creative process and the project's findings when it is complete.
'Dreams of Mother-of-Pearl' runs at Mu.ZEE in Ostend until 16 June 2019.