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Menard Art Museum, Komaki City, Japan, Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Sabam Brussels

Urban avant-gardist or small-town loony? The Belgian painter James Ensor, who has a survey of hilarious, gruesome beauty at the Museum of Modern Art, is a puzzle to fans and strangers alike, a classic insider-outsider.

He knew all the right art-world people but hated most of them and was sure they hated him. He was an aggrieved traditionalist with a pop-culture itch, equally entertained by Rubens and tabloid cartoons. He was a sophisticated artist who helped shape early Modernism, not in a Paris studio but in an attic room over a novelty shop in a resort town on the North Sea.

Although Ensor has long been a fixture in the art canon, he is also a fugitive presence. My guess is that a lot of people know his name without knowing quite who he is. Who can blame them? He’s hard to pin down. Gothic fantasist, political satirist, religious visionary: one minute he’s doing biblical scenes, the next the equivalent of biker tattoos, in a style that veers between crude and dainty.

Just consider his self-portraits. Within the span of five years in the late 1880s he depicted himself as a cross-dressed dandy, a rotting corpse, a bug, a fish, Albrecht Durer and a crucified Jesus. Clearly that attic room was a crowded, cacophonous place, and the MoMA show, though airily installed, puts us right inside it.

Ensor was born in Ostend, Belgium, in 1860, and his life began with uncertainties. His father, an Englishman, was probably an alcoholic and a bankrupt. The family’s main income came from the Ostend shop owned by his Belgian mother’s family, an antiques-and-souvenirs emporium selling china, taxidermic specimens and grotesque carnival masks.

Ensor studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, immersing himself in Bosch and Rembrandt, as well as in modern realists like Courbet and Manet. Goya and Turner, artists “obsessed with light and violence,” as he put it, became favorites. He aligned himself with a circle of painters who were politically leftist — anti-imperial, anti-clerical, pro-worker — and aesthetically progressive. In 1883 they formed a group called Les Vingt, or the 20, and organized a salon that drew contemporary artists from across Europe, including Monet and Seurat.

Ensor exhibited in the salon for a decade, but he had a bitter parting of ways when several of its members converted to neo-Impressionism, while he held firm to a dark-hued realist path. The early paintings at MoMA, crumbly still lifes and gravy-brown interiors, are in this style and get things off to a lugubrious start.

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Holland Cotter
New York Times

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