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Thursday, November 10, 2011

James Ensor

As artists, we often joke about the old saying that our work isn't worth much until after our death. Of course, for dead artists, it's no joke. I rather doubt there's an artist dead today for whom this isn't true. Living artists laugh to hide our discomfort in thinking just how true it is. Let's face it, death has a certain way of limiting the supply of an artist's work, allowing the demand to move prices higher. And of course, given the rosy hue that the passing years project on an artist's work (alive or dead), the art world, sometimes begrudgingly, begins to respect what the artist was trying to do or say, causing collectors to pay more. I sometimes wonder if artists would work as hard as they do if it weren't for the hope that their work would be appreciated more after their death. After all, whether we always think about it or not, the act of creation (biological or artistic) is a seeking after immortality.

Les Masques Scandalisees, 1881, James Ensor
James Ensor died in 1949. He was 89 years old. If he was watching from the grave, expecting to see the price of his work skyrocket, he would have been disappointed. For twenty or thirty years, the Belgian artist was little more than a name on an Ostend gravestone. It's little wonder. Ensor is not easy to love. An Expressionist artist with elements of Impressionism, Surrealism, and even Dada, one would have to have a strong appreciation for the macabre--masks, skeletons, death, the existential, and the supernatural to love Ensor. His 1881 painting, Les Masques Scandalisees (left). is typical of his early work. It depicts an old lady wearing the mask of an old lady arriving at the door of a seated old man wearing the mask of an old man. I can't help it, the painting strikes me as nineteenth century "trick-or-treat."

Entrance of Christ into Brussels, 1888, James Ensor 
Ensor's mature work can be seen in his 1888 Entrance of Christ into Brussels (above). Considered his masterpiece, the painting is a throng of grotesque faces, masks, skeletons, and fools making a sharp social comment on the false propriety of the upper-class rulers of the city. It is one of the earliest examples of pure expressionism to be found. Ensor was in love with masks. It was a love and inspiration born of those in his mother's curiosity shop. In the 1880s, he turned the attic over her shop into a studio and there painted the most "modern" art of his time, even as compared to such contemporaries as Cezanne, Van Gogh, or Gauguin. Yet a hundred years later, Ensor's work was so little appreciated, that the Getty Museum in Malibu was able to "steal" Entrance of Christ into Brussels for as little as $10 million. Ensor's ghost must have danced on his grave. Americans appreciated his work whether his countrymen did or not. In any case, that figure is a considerable improvement over the $210 for which Ensor offered to sell the entire collection of his own work in 1893. He had no takers. I guess maybe he looked to young and healthy.

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