Oud Holland

Review of: 'The social context of James Ensor' (2022)

November 2023


Review of: Susan M. Canning, The social context of James Ensor’s art practice: Vive la sociale [Bloomsbury] London 2023

In the introduction and epilogue of her book The social context of James Ensor’s art practice, Susan Canning lays her cards on the table. The latest major Ensor exhibitions at the MoMA (2009), the Getty Museum (2014), the Chicago Art Institute (2014-2015) and the Royal Academy (2016-2017) still presented Ensor's (1860-1949) work as ‘difficult, strange and disturbed’, perpetuating the myth of Ensor's “alienation, disaffection, martyrdom and neurosis.”1 These exhibitions have thus reaffirmed the traditional, century-old interpretation of Ensor’s oeuvre and the figure of the artist as a ‘misunderstood outsider’ and ‘outlier.’ This interpretation was, in part, fueled by Ensor himself and continues to dominate the image of Ensor, even today, in Belgium.

Canning aims to challenge this "Romantic myth of the alienated and isolated artist",2 the image of Ensor as an artist "without agency or intent,"3 and the perception of his art as "a reflection of personal estrangement and psychological trauma."4 She argues that Ensor was not an unadjusted and disturbed individual but was well-organised in his affairs, socially and artistically integrated, well-networked and deeply engaged in self-promotion. While this argument is not new, it remains important and relevant. However, Canning weakens her position by overestimating and misinterpreting the rebellious nature of Ensor's artistry and by forcing an interpretation of his grotesque and satirical works.

According to Canning, Ensor's primary goal was not solely a successful artistic career but to be "an engaged modernist actively participating with and responding to the cultural dynamic of his time."5 He aimed to use his art, "to examine the relationship between the public self and the private life, articulate the concept of social identity, and even participate in acts of social protest and social activism to articulate opposition to and dissent from the established social order."6

Canning has been writing a series of articles on the social and political aspects of Ensor's work since 1993. In this book, she replaces the myth of romantic artistry with a rather anachronistic reinterpretation of Ensor as an example of the 'artistic practice' of a socially and politically engaged 'artist-researcher' and activist. Ensor created approximately 850 paintings, 150 etchings and many drawings. The majority of his paintings are landscapes, seascapes and still lifes. The grotesque body of work, including the actual mask paintings and satires, represents a quantitatively limited part of his oeuvre. Moreover, many of these works are small in scale, with the monumental The entry of Christ into Brussels (1889) being a notable exception. Canning's book is largely based on Ensor's grotesque and satirical oeuvre, drawing connections to his self-portraits, early interiors and portraits of women. While this remains a limited portion of his work, it is certainly the work upon which Ensor's reputation is built.

In the second part of the book, Canning demonstrates that Ensor was not artistically or socially isolated and unadjusted but well-integrated, and she outlines his social milieu. After his time at the academy, Ensor returned to Ostend in 1880, where he lived with his family, worked in the family's souvenir and curiosities shop, and assisted with the room rentals. Concurrently, he built his artistic career in Brussels, starting with his first participation in an exhibition in 1881, alongside young fellow artists, both supporters and competitors from the artist associations La Chrysalide and Les XX. He received support from the Hannon and Rousseau families and their circles of acquaintances. The Hannons and Rousseaus belonged to the enlightened, secular Brussels bourgeoisie and the milieu of scientists and lawyers from the University of Brussels. Ensor had met the Rousseau family through Théo Hannon, a fellow student at the academy, and the brother of Mariette Rousseau, professor Emile Rousseau’s wife.

Cover ofThe social context of James Ensor’s art practice: Vive la sociale
Left: fig. 1 James Esnor, The Drunkards, 1883, oil on canvas|
Middle: fig. 2 James Esnor, Self-portrait with flowered hat, 1883, oil on canvas, 76.5 x 61.5 cm., Mu.ZEE, Oostende
Right: fig. 3 James Esnor, Old lady with mask, 1889, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., M of Fine Arts, Ghent, inv. no. 1969-B.
Canning characterises these contacts as follows: "Ensor came to know a diverse group of intellectuals, many of them researchers and scholars,"7 and she believes that the Rousseaus were not just art-loving sympathisers and early collectors but that they also  introduced Ensor to, "socialist and anarchist theory and an engagement with current social and political issues."8 Ensor made acquaintances with "progressive politics, radical social theory" after which he used his 'art practice', "to make visible his radical anarchist perspective and transgressive critique of Belgian society."9

However, a more precise chronology and additional information shed a different light on the matter. Young Ensor entered the academy in Brussels at the age of 17 and stayed there for three years, with moderate success, before returning to Oostende. During these years, Ensor was still relatively unknown, but he had joined forces with his nearly ten years older fellow student, Théo Hannon, who was already a recognised figure: a painter and etcher, a member of La Chrysalide, a poet, a contributor and later director of the magazine L’Artiste, which was succeeded by L’Art Moderne, and later, a satirical playwright. In the year Ensor arrived in Brussels, Hannon's poetry was already being extensively discussed in L’Artiste. Ensor did not find his Brussels acquaintances because he sought political allies; he was welcomed into an art-loving, secular, affluent bourgeois environment of intellectuals and (natural) scientists through Hannon. Canning assumes that anyone who visited Emile Rousseau's house immediately belonged to Ensor's circle and that Ensor was familiar with what all these people were professionally involved in, suggesting that the Rousseau household served as a "supportive milieu for Ensor’s intellectual and political engagement."10 Ensor found there an "alliance of science, socialism, and politics," and this "would inspire and radicalise his art practice throughout the 1880s."11 However, Canning does not specify what this 'alliance' entails, how it is evidenced, or how politics played a role at the Rousseaus', let alone socialist and anarchist theory or political activism. In other words, she confuses enlightened bourgeois progressiveness with political interest and radicalism.

Certainly, in the early 1880s, Ensor was a provocateur. The rebellious and mischievous attitude of the young artist, his connections with Vogels and other members of La Chrysalide, later with Les XX, his anti-academic stance, and the introduction of grotesque and satirical elements into his art from 1884 onwards, though, were not motivated by politics or societal concerns. His youthful mischief fits into an age-old image of artists. 'Épater le bourgeois' is part of the customs through which the artist displays his freedom and claims a free space for art. Canning views Les XX as a "radical artist’s society that joined social activism with a modernist practice", with "anarcho-socialist leanings."12 However, explicit anti-academicism was merely the style and the 'official line' of La Chrysalide and later Les XX, as well of magazines like L’Artiste and L’Art Moderne. The anti-academic stance and criticism pertained to artistic issues and reputations. Ensor's world was the art world. His pamphlet about his time at the Academy, which Ensor published anonymously in L’Art Moderne three years after leaving the school, fits perfectly with the magazine's approach and addresses his friends. The 'realism' in some of Ensor's early paintings, such as The drunkards (1883) (fig. 1), remains very generic and innocent.

From the mid-1880s onwards, he used the grotesque and sarcasm to establish and strengthen his own position within the art world compared to his fellow painters and competitors – primarily Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), later Willy Finch (1854-1930), and Willem Paerels (1878-1962) – and against foreign 'painters of the light’ and their defenders like Octave Maus (1856-1919). His disagreements with Maus and Les XX had nothing to do with Ensor's attempt to confront "contemporary audiences with his particular social critique",13 but were differences of opinion about who should exhibit at Les XX – Ensor found Maus too internationally oriented. The refined Maus had some difficulty with Ensor's sometimes rather crude provocations. However, as far as is known, Ensor never affiliated with a political circle or engaged in political action. The few satirical works from the early 1890s that indeed mock The good judges (1891-1894) – Ensor and his family had legal disputes during those years – and later The bad doctors (1892-1895) are variations on similar caricatures by Honoré Daumier (add dates), and they are directed towards an in-crowd, partly due to the personalisation of the figures.14 This is certainly true for the painting The dangerous cooks, the third satirical group portrait, where he portrays art critics and colleagues (1896). Ensor never drew caricatures for a newspaper, for example, which would have been much more politically and critically effective than painting or making the (grotesque) etchings that Canning interprets as 'activist' but which Ensor himself called 'comic subjects' and amusing 'baroque compositions'. He cautiously sold these as much as possible to museums and friends: "Many people ask me for certain etchings, I only give certain subjects to my very close friends."15

It is indeed true that Ensor, through his rough, unfinished style of painting and his mask paintings, offended the sensibilities of the broad public, and this sentiment was expressed in some newspapers. However, this kind of critique and change is no different from how, a few decades later, Picasso or abstract painters were declared mad and ridiculed by a similar public. Ensor became the most significant Belgian artist of his generation by – in his own words – ‘combining or alternating’, first and foremost, his ‘recherches de la lumière’, where he made every effort to distinguish his palette's illumination from the methodical light effects of the 'luminist fanfare' of (foreign) impressionists and pointillists that Octave Maus invited to the exhibitions of Les XX. He achieved this by developing "ce goût de l'exceptionnel, de l'anormal"16 – essentially by rediscovering and reintroducing the irreverent tone and 'low' iconography of the grotesque into the bloodless, bourgeois-clean, 'high' academic art of the nineteenth century. Ensor thus received the resistance he consciously provoked with his 'revolt' against academic art. The reason why he gradually, and even in his old age, identified himself with total rejection and neglect is that he regarded such disregard, misunderstanding, and rejection as an unmistakable sign of genius, belonging to the antagonistic, anti-bourgeois modern artist persona that he wanted to embody and to use to establish his position within the art world. But like all artists striving to make a name for themselves, Ensor had his opponents, false friends, competitors and allies.

Paying attention to recently discovered sources would have provided Canning with material that strengthens her criticism of the romantic artist image, and it could have prevented her from overinterpreting the grotesque and satirical works.17

The grotesque and satirical aspects in Ensor's art are indeed not expressions of his dark romantic character, childhood memories, traumas, or professional frustrations. Instead, they originate from his discovery of Champfleury's 'Histoire de la caricature' and the brilliant realization that he could create 'other' art with it. Jules Husson, known as Champfleury (1821-1889), was a French writer of satires and pantomimes, a friend and critic of Baudelaire, Zola, and Courbet. Between 1865 and 1880, he published a series of seven eclectic, illustrated pocket books on folk art, caricature, and the grotesque throughout history and civilisations.18 These extensive and rich overviews encompassed a wide range of subjects, from ancient theater masks and graffiti, Gothic drolleries and danse macabres, Breughel and Callot, English political caricaturists, to the history of Turkish puppet theater, carnival, commedia dell'arte, Japanese prints, and more. Théo Hannon was familiar with Champfleury's work and was possibly in contact with him. Champfleury wrote for Brussels art magazines already in the early 1870s. L'Artiste published excerpts from 'Histoire de la Caricature' during Ensor's time at the academy, and Champfleury's early work on pantomime inspired Hannon's work for the theater in the 1880s. Ensor undoubtedly discovered Champfleury through Hannon, and from 1884 onwards – the year in which he ordered or purchased the volumes on 'Caricature Antique' and 'Caricature Moderne' – he introduced 'masks' into his oeuvre. In the subsequent years, Ensor systematically reused numerous small illustrations from those books, sometimes from consecutive pages, for his mask paintings and satirical works. At least 25 of his major grotesque works unmistakably feature such creative borrowings. This confirms that artists do not, as historians and critics often believe, develop images from ideas or theories and communicate 'messages' or meanings; instead, they think visually and seek to create new, powerful images from existing ones, without a specific interest what these new images may 'mean'.

Champfleury's text and ideas, however, did inspire Ensor's views on artistic identity and artistry. In the ‘Histoire de la Caricature Moderne', Champfleury presents the rebellious and critical Honoré Daumier, to whom he had already dedicated a book on the Bohemians and Les Excentriques, as the prototype of the modern artist as the persecuted rebel: "Tout homme est jugé grand qui traine après lui des légions de négateurs, de gens hostiles, d'esprits bas qui se remuent, s'attroupent et font repoussoir à son génie."19 And Champfleury writes about, "cette caricature dure, injuste, cruelle, qui forme un côté du piédestal de son génie." A true artist needs misrecognition! This view of artistic identity is probably also the source of Ensor's self-pity concerning the ‘legion of critics’ who constantly pursued him, and of his surprising identification with Christ, which Ensor began developing in 1886. "Although crucified, Jesus was caricatured."20 Champfleury extensively presents and discusses in the second edition of 'Caricature Antique' a now famous ancient caricature from Pompeii that depict Christ with a donkey's head, which Ensor directly incorporated into his self-portrait as the 'pisser' who is declared ‘fou’. He praises artist-caricaturists as the "mockers-chastisers of humanity" ("les railleurs de l'humanité"), who turn human vices into "masks as strong as ancient theater masks", and he compares Daumiers art to the sculpture of an ancient, melancholic faun from the Capitoline Museum.21 This faun figure suddenly appears at the cross of Christ in Ensor's etching Satan et les légions fantastiques tourmentant le crucifié (1895).

Canning's most significant examples of Ensor's "anarchist bombs" and "propaganda by the deed"22 are undoubtedly the Entry of Christ into Brussels and a few crude etchings with direct references to politics and current events, such as The gendarmes and the two versions of Doctrinaire feeding (1889). These works are indeed politically aggressive in content, but one must relativize the extent to which they demonstrate political terrorism. Ensor withheld the Entry from the Les XX exhibition at the last moment, a work that, for Canning, remains the prime example of Ensor's "anarcho-socialist advocacy of individual action" and "provocative incitement to action."23 Ensor did not publicly expose this "visual manifesto of the collective, social purpose of his art practice", until his major retrospective exhibition in 1929, 40 years later.24  Furthermore, he then even corrected inscriptions carried by figures in the march for that exhibition.

The two versions of Doctrinaire feeding, which indeed lampoon figures of authority, are genuine political cartoons in the style of Hogarth and most likely among those reserved for his closest friends. When Ensor received his baron title, he quickly destroyed as many of these prints as possible, making the print "the rarest engraving by Ensor."25 Furthermore, it is true, when Ensor was already a recognised artist and public figure, he openly opposed vivisection, criticised architects who destroyed dunes and the Sonian Forest, and erected in his eyes ugly buildings like the St. Peter's Station in Ghent. However, this engagement remains limited to sporadic diatribes in table speeches and public events. These extra-artistic interventions against "the exploitation of the natural world", during a period when his art had become much softer and gentler and Ensor was already Baron Ensor, are difficult to categorise as radical political interventions. They were not yet politically charged , and had no direct connection to his art.

Canning argues that the satires from the 1890s, such as Les Mauvais Médecins, were Ensor's way of addressing societal issues. According to her, Ensor "addressed topical social issues such as hygiene, contagion, and modern medical practice."26 In the first and third parts of her book, Canning further supports this idea by linking other parts of Ensor's oeuvre to broader societal problems. She claims that Ensor "articulated the social agenda of his art practice," encompassing "debates over science and religion, explorations of the natural world, the social individual and urban life, and concerns over degeneration and disease."27

In the first part of her study, Canning discusses Ensor’s self-portraits in this way. She argues that Ensor, through his self-portraits, aims to publicly display his own identity and place while simultaneously "affirming that identity can be constructed, modified, and utilised for both expressive intent and self-promotion."28 For her, the self-portraits "describe the world as one of appearances, and multiple selves defined within this social exchange and capable of being fashioned into a public performance of expressive subjectivity."29 They are aimed at undermining the, "nineteenth century constructions of class, gender and sexuality, placing the artist's social identity in the indeterminate position of in-between that provides through his creative acts of performance, a space of empowerment, interrogation, and critique."30 Canning writes that, "influenced by modernist theory with its emphasis on individualism, personal expression, and activism and energised by the disruptive critique discovered in caricature, satire, and burlesque theater and the radical ideology of anarchist and socialist politics; Ensor’s self-portraits deploy performance and self-promotion to represent himself as an artist intent on a successful career and socially engaged individual involved with the social and cultural issues of his times."31 Canning interprets Ensor's self-awareness and intense gaze in a self-portrait as a 19-year-old, created with a mirror, as a "deliberate effort to be recognised and perceived as a socially engaged individual."32 Commenting on the Self-portrait with flowered hat (1883-1888) (fig. 2), she states that the self-portraits "underscore his social engagement, arguing through their presentation for a broader purpose and social meaning," and that they want to demonstrate "the expressive and critical potential of travesty."33 She concludes by saying that, "Announcing his place within the social space of travesty, Ensor affirms the strategies of subterfuge and performance."34

In the third part of the book, Canning interprets the interiors from 1880 and 1881 and the portraits of women in the same vein. She argues that these provide a "glimpse into the private interior world of women, presenting a nuanced understanding of individual subjectivity and the modern life experiences of women that were also studied at this time by the emerging social science of psychology and in research by the medical doctor Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and others on neurosis and hysteria."35 Canning connects the grotesque distorted faces in Old woman with masks (1889) (fig. 3) with "contemporary depictions of hysterics, degenerates, and drunks or those suffering from mental disease, all social miscreants with disorders then associated with women."36 Ensor's various versions of The temptations of Saint Anthony also relate to the "nineteenth-century social constructions of the feminine."37

The issue is not that Canning, from a contemporary perspective, examines the societal or political significance or relevance of Ensor's work. After all, artworks are also historical documents that tell us something about the context in which they were created and used. Naturally, they can be studied with today's theoretical framework and interests, analyzing self-portraits as tools for constructing social identity, reading images of home interiors as evidence of the gendered occupation of social spaces, or understanding the use of the Christ figure in light of the societal role of religions in Belgium in the late-nineteenth century. However, attributing to Ensor the interests and perspectives of the theoretical questions of the early-twenty-first century and inscribing them into the genesis and purpose of his art, is a different matter. In her attempt to 'modernise' Ensor and make him an example or ally of today's activist researcher-artist, Canning commits one intentional fallacy after the other. What can be meaningfully said about, or in response to, his art today is not necessarily the concern of the artist Ensor when he created his work.

James Ensor is, along with René Magritte, one of the best-documented and most studied Belgian artists. Catalogues of his works have been compiled, and there are detailed summaries of his career, his writings are available, and his known correspondence has been published. So, there is (a lot of) material available, as well as much criticism and secondary literature. Inevitably, a crust of interpretations has formed around his oeuvre, which keeps it in the spotlight and protects it while simultaneously simplifying and freezing it. This is even more compelling because the figure of Ensor is used for and by cultural politics and tourism in Flanders. Canning knows Ensor's oeuvre and career very well; she informs and argues very clearly and in detail, and her criticism of the rusty romantic clichés that continue to circulate about Ensor hits the mark. However, her attempt to simultaneously turn Ensor into a quasi-political artist and update him as a contemporary activist researcher is far from convincing. A nineteenth-century artist like Ensor did not have an 'artistic practice'; he painted or created art. Such an update, in which we believe we understand and appreciate the lives and worlds of the past because, or to the extent that, they resemble us (or we resemble them), is both not very meaningful and highly deceptive. The meaning and value of the memory work of critics and historians lies in saving, and confronting the present with, what does not fit today, what does not seem 'interesting' now, and is not 'useful.'

Bart Verschaffel
Professor Emeritus
Theory of Architecture and Architectural Criticism
Ghent University

1 E. Canning, The social context of James Ensor’s art practice: Vive la sociale, London 2023, p. 216.

2 Canning 2023 (note 1), p. 215.

3 Canning 2023, p. 215.

4 Canning 2023, p. 7-8.

5 Canning 2023, p. 215.

6 Canning 2023, p. 216.

7 Canning 2023, p. 65.

8 Canning 2023, p. 2.

9 Canning 2023, p. 8.

10 Canning 2023, p. 8.

11 Canning 2023, p. 75.

12 Canning 2023, p. 80.

13 Canning 2023, p. 7-8.

14 See for the caricatures of Honoré Daumier: Les gens de Médecine. Catalogue raisonné de Jean Adhémar, Paris 1960.

15 Letter to Emma Lambotte 10 February; 16 February 1913. James Ensor, Lettres, Ed. Labor, 1999

16 Letter to Dujardin, 6 oktober 1899.

17 Missing in Canning is B. Verschaffel, Mock humanity. Two essays on Ensor’s grotesques. James Ensor’s grotesques and the history of Caricature by Champfleury. Frame and figure in the work of James Ensor, Ghent 2018.

18 Champfleury has published Histoire de la caricature antique (1865); Histoire de la caricature moderne (1865); Histoire de la caricature au Moyen-Âge et sous la Renaissance (1870); Histoire de la caricature sous la République, l'Empire et la Restauration (1874); Histoire de la caricature sous la Réforme et la Ligue. Louis XIII à Louis XVI (1880); Histoire des faiences patriotiques sous la Révolution (1867); Le Musée secret de la caricature (1887).

19 Champfleury, Histoire de la caricature antique, 1867 2, p. 266.

20 Champfleury, o.c., p. 266.

21 Champfleury, Histoire de la caricature moderne, p. 188.

22 Canning 2023, p. 103.

23 Canning 2023, p. 7.

24 Canning 2023, p. 2.

25 August Taevernier cites Paul Van de Perre, in: A. Taevernier, L’OEuvre graphique de James Ensor, Ghent 1999, p. 199.

26 Canning 2023.

27 Canning 2023, p. 103.

28 Canning 2023.

29 Canning 2023, p. 51.

30 Canning 2023, pp. 216-217.

31  Canning 2023, p. 12.

32 Canning 2023, p. 20.

33 Canning 2023, p. 29.

34 Canning 2023, p. 30.

35 Canning 2023, p. 178.

36 Canning 2023, p 196.

37 Canning 2023, p 193. 

Bart Verschaffel, ‘Review of: The social context of James Ensor’s art practice: Vive la sociale’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2023.