Ostend was birthplace and muse to two of the greatest Belgian artists of the late nineteenth century, James Ensor and Léon Spilliaert. The former famous worldwide and the subject of countless retrospectives, the latter inexplicably little known outside his home country.
Although vastly different in temperament and their thinking about art, both took from their environs what they needed to form their own unique visual languages.
The forthright and extrovert Ensor loved it for the crowds, the tempestuous North Sea and the annual Carnival that filled the streets with subject matter for some of his greatest works. In his mother’s curiosity shop, now a museum where Japanese tourists enquire optimistically if the shiny reproductions on the walls are original, he took inspiration from the bizarre ephemera on sale there. Ensconced in the studio he inhabited on the top floor he would pose and dress the skeletons which were to appear in some of his best known works.
For the introverted Spilliaert it was nocturnal wanderings through the town and lengthy strolls across the beach which would inspire him to create his monochrome Symbolist canvases. The city was the raw material for his art, synonymous with his melancholy soul, and through it he was able to transform his inner alienation into a distorted outer reality.
With such vastly different styles, pairing the two artists in a wing at the town’s Mu.ZEE is perhaps not the most logical thing to do, as the museums’ director Philip Van den Bossche is the first to admit. However, they both owe their vision to Ostend and the museum is uniquely placed to eschew a conventional historical narrative in favour of the role an environment plays in artistic development.
On entering the wing visitors are greeted by two monumental photographs, both taken on the balcony of Ostend’s casino. Ensor is shown on a sunny day in 1926 gazing out over the bathers which would so often feature in his paintings. Spilliaert, smiling enigmatically at the camera, shelters from the rain with the sculptor Oscar Jespers.
The first section is dedicated to Ensor‘s early years and his effort to capture the light over the city and the sea. On display are the Turneresque After the Storm (1880) and Large Seascape (1885). There is also Christ Calming the Storm (1891) in which the boat and tiny figure of Christ are dwarfed by dramatic green waves in what is less a subject than a painterly search for light.
In contrast to Ensor’s love of colour and light Spilliaert uses a monochrome palette ranging from inky black to twilight grey, relieved occasionally by a muted shade of orange or blue, to explore Ostend by night. The Gust of Wind (1904) shows a young girl on the sea front, her mouth open in a Munchian scream as her black dress is lifted by a gust of wind to reveal a glimpse of white bloomers and petticoat. It is an enigmatic image which manages to conjure a mixture of desire, loneliness and nightmare. Vertigo (1908), one of his most famous works, turns a series of steps into dramatic sweeping curves offset by the flowing scarf of a shadowy woman descending them.
The wing is somewhat hampered by most of Ensor’s major paintings being in other collections but what it lacks in large canvases it makes up for in prints and drawings. Fortunately Ensor’s obsession with death and impermanence led him to become a prolific printmaker. ‘I dread the fragility of painting,’ he said. ‘I want to survive and I think of solid copper plates and unalterable links…of faithful printing, and I am adapting etching as a means of expression.’ The museum is well served with some fine examples.
His uniquely macabre mocking of contemporary social mores is spectacularly demonstrated in Death Chasing the Flock of Mortals. In it we see the large skeletal figure of death, brandishing an enormous menacing scythe, hovering over a swarming mass below. The figures are mostly portrayed with grinning masklike faces as they flee the oncoming catastrophe, masks being for Ensor a way of depicting the ugly inner self which humanity does its best to keep hidden. On the right we see a nude woman toasting her companions emphasising the debauchery, cruelty and indifference Ensor saw in contemporary society.
This pessimistic view of humanity is further emphasised In Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels (1888) in which he reverses Brueghel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels to give the demons the upper hand.
There are also intriguing oddities such as the costumes Ensor designed for a ballet for which he also wrote the music.
The museum does have one undoubted masterpiece, Self Portrait with Flowered Hat, first painted in 1883 and then updated five years later to include the jaunty flowered headpiece with a striking feather at its rear. A humorous acknowledgement to the debt he owed to Rubens, it shows a quietly confident Ensor staring quizzically out at the viewer.
It could not be further removed from the two self portraits of Spilliaert on display which exude existential angst. In Self Portrait with Red Pencil he is shown lit from behind, his hair a fuzzy Eraserhead glow whilst his eyes are rimmed in shadow.
Visitors from outside Belgium may be drawn by Ensor’s name but one hopes they will leave remembering Spilliaert’s.