James Ensor, “The Intrigue” (1890), oil on canvas, 90 x 149 cm, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, inv. 1856 (photo by Hugo Maertens)

Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans takes its title from the painting that so captivated the celebrated contemporary artist Tuymans as a teenager in Antwerp. The piece summarizes Ensor (1860–1949) as a fantastically idiosyncratic painter defying categorization, imagining masked grotesques in lurid primary colors, all rolling eyes and gaping visages. Tuymans recalls: “It was a very fearful thing to look at.” Despite formal training at the Academy in Brussels, Ensor’s singularly individual style was undoubtedly incubated by his isolation from any major tempering artistic influences, as he remained throughout his life in his hometown of seaside Ostend. As such, even though he was the son of a British engineer and traveled occasionally to London, he is relatively unknown in Britain. Given the undeniably spooky, even threatening nature of his work, it is understandable then the Royal Academy of Arts invited fellow Belgian Tuymans — who is perhaps now better known for his conviction in a highly publicized and unfortunate lawsuit regarding plagiarism in one of his paintings, which draw upon existing images for their very point — to curate an exhibition reintroducing Ensor’s daunting body of work.

“Present” is a more appropriate word here than “curate,” for Tuymans has cleared the Sackler Wing galleries at the RA – usually richly colored and low-lit for its more traditional art-historical displays – in favor of the open white-cube spaces employed by “contemporary” shows. There is a very general academic division of this exhibit into three spaces: “Early Work and Self-portraits,” “Works on Paper,” and “Intrigue,” but beyond this, there is little order in the regular sense of a survey. Taken as an attempt to create an overall effect, however, it just about comes off, because Ensor’s work is so thrillingly diverse, startling, and ingenious.

James Ensor, “Self-portrait with Flowered Hat” (1883), oil on canvas, 76.5 x 61.5 cm.

Room one focuses on early works, in which a gloomy palette depicts dim Ostend interiors and introduces Ensor’s main concerns with bourgeoisie life: “Bourgeoisie Salon” and “Chinoiserie, Fans and Fabrics,” both from 1880, are beautifully observed reflections of the niceties of middle-class life, the latter detailing the trinkets and curios sold by Ensor’s parents in their seaside Ostend shop. Even here, a savagery of technique simmers away: chunky color laid on with a palette knife, or the sharp end of the brush scraping into the wet paint. Against this, the familiar figure of the skeleton emerges, in pieces like “Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries” (1888), as does Ensor’s more openly absurd, freefall ideas: “Self Portrait in a Flowered Hat” (1883) is a clearly finished portrait, later returned to when Ensor decided to ridicule himself — or the societal function of the portrait itself – by adding a hilariously silly floral hat, even going so far as to extend his moustache into a blue curling twill. Full marks, Tuymans, for carefully showing the progression.

James Ensor, “Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring” (1891), oil on panel. 16 x 21.5 cm (photo by J. Geleyns)

Once we’re into the other two rooms regarding works on paper and a collection inspired by “The Intrigue,” any sense of measured progression has evidently been discarded in favor of organized chaos; religious-themed works such as the somber charcoal “Calvary” (1886) sit alongside nightmarish imaginings such as the chalk-on-paper “Comical Meal” (1905) or the astonishing “Peculiar Insects” (1888), with sequences such as prints on the Deadly Sins scattered throughout. It’s a carnival of themes and styles from seemingly random points in the artist’s history. Despite focusing on drawings, these are matched in the same space by astonishing paintings such as the monumental “Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise” (1887), all blinding primary color and savage rendering. Still-lifes sit in both rooms, oddly not together (though perhaps that’s the point). Perhaps the idea is to match Ensor’s unquestionable oddness by displaying his sheer range of ideas and remarkable drawing skills in a variety of media. In this respect, Tuymans absolutely steps up to the bar, and it feels like a kaleidoscopic tour of Ensor’s clearly voraciously imaginative brain. One struggles to think of another artist who would work so well with this treatment.

James Ensor, “Plague Here, Plague There, Plague Everywhere” (1888), black, blue and red chalk and graphite on paper, 22.5 x 30 cm (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (photo by Hugo Maertens)

However, this demonstrates my main issue with the show. Ensor is clearly vividly gripping enough to sustain the display singlehandedly, yet Tuymans has chosen to embellish the show with both his own work and that of contemporaries of both himself and Ensor, who naturally shows everybody up. Tuymans draws forth the carnival link from Ensor’s “The Intrigue”: It stems from the Belgian carnival tradition, in particular the Shrove Tuesday mask-wearing parade in Ostend. Tuymans’s own painting “Gilles de Binche” (2005) — by contrast to Ensor a washed-out, pale silhouette — shows the plumed headdresses worn during the Belgian Binche Carnival, with a physical example of the headdress shown, perplexingly, in an adjacent room. Similarly, Tuymans inserts two portraits by self-taught Ostend artist Leon Spilliaert with little obvious constructive purpose, curious though they are. To my mind, these additions brought little to an already exemplary collection of fascinating works, especially being so few in number.

One feels that Tuymans should have either gone for a full survey or ramped up the embellishing works to introduce more links and ideas to visually explore the impact Ensor has had on Tuymans and/or other artists. I am more than happy with the current display; it introduces to an unfamiliar audience the vast creativity and fascinating technical styles — his 1892 still-life of a skate is thrilling — of a painter who was little accepted during his own time and famously individual within art history. The exhibition goes some way to capturing the “exquisite chaos” of which Ensor spoke, yet the creative additions from Tuymans, interestingly because they don’t sit so well in the show, do add to the overall intrigue.

James Ensor, “The Skate” (1892), oil on panel, 80 x 100 cm. (photo by J. Geleyns)

Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans continues at The Royal Academy (Burlington House, Piccadilly) through January 29, 2017.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...