The Secrets of James Ensor

On the occasion of the Ensor year 2024, Bart Ramakers was asked to create a scene for the Ensor Walk Elle Adore le Noir, which leads along 40 Ostend shop windows. He took up the challenge with one great ambition: to unveil the mysteries that persist around the great Ostend artist, partly because the myths he created around his life still stand.

Bart Ramakers, Les Secrets du Hareng Saur, 2024

In his self-created mythology, Ensor suggests that his grotesque figures, caricatural situations, masks, and skeletons simply came to him out of the blue, that he thought of everything himself, as an autonomous sovereign creator, without outside influences (except for the great masters of the past of course, like Goya or Rembrandt or Bosch). Furthermore, he has always carefully kept in the shadows his family relationships and the women in his life. High time to lift the fog!

Les Secrets du Hareng Saur is a search plate with references to 10 artworks by James Ensor, which at the same time sheds a demystifying light on the relationships and sources of inspiration of the often misunderstood Ostend artist.

ATTENTION Spoiler Alert!

BOOM! The smoke from General Leman’s cannon shot (Ensor and General Leman dispute about painting) has barely cleared when the Consoling Virgin approaches the kneeling James Ensor. Who is this woman, who is so central in this scene and in his life?

James Ensor, Ensor and General Leman argue about the art of painting © Cedric Verhelst

In Ensor and General Leman argue about the art of painting, Mariëtte Rousseau plays herself as the central reconciling character, in the Comforting Virgin she takes on the form of the Virgin Mary. Later, James would confess that she was the most important encounter in his life, when he as an art student was finding his way in Brussels. For over 30 years, they corresponded, filling more than 400 letters.

James Ensor, the Comforting Virgin

James Ensor in this work has fallen on his knees for his great love, his brushes scattered around him on the ground. In the upper right, on a capital, the grotesque head of Mariette’s husband Ernest Rousseau, professor and rector at the ULB, looks on grinding his teeth. Has the relationship remained purely platonic? We have no idea, Ensor never wrote anything about it, only a drawing with a heart and a key that he sent to Mariette has been handed down as a testimony of his passion.

In Les Secrets du Hareng Saur it remains unclear whether Mariette blesses or reproaches Ensor. In her left hand she holds the drawing in which he confesses his love for her. Of course, in front of him (just like in the painting) lies a hareng saur, which we would now call a pickled herring, a reference to Ensor’s name that he liked to play with.

While Mariette/Maria consoles Ensor, he is pulled on the sleeve by a naked maiden. It seems like a temptation of Saint Anthony, a favorite theme of James: the hermit plagued by wanton maidens and demons.

James Ensor, the Temptation of Saint Antonius

But the demon that torments Ensor is one of his own choosing. They are rarely brought to the forefront, but they are indeed present in his life and work: carnal desires. For example, there is Augusta Bogaerts, the shop girl he met in his mother’s shell shop, whom he was not allowed to marry. He maintained a hidden relationship with her throughout his life, although they only appeared in public together more frequently after his mother’s death. Here she is depicted in the style of the rosy, uncomplicated beings that populate his sketch Bathing young girls. The true nature of the relationship between Bogaerts and Ensor is not so clear-cut; she has at least let slip that “Jimmy” was not a great lover. Perhaps due to his clashes with his dominant mother, he had experienced that women threaten the free artist’s life, and thereby cultivated a certain misogyny.

James Ensor, Bathing Young Girls

The father of Ensor (here played by art philosopher Willem Elias) was a well-read and intelligent man who unfortunately could not fulfill his ambitions and ended up under the thumb of his wife and turning to alcohol. Here we see him thoroughly enjoying a good bottle of white wine, while his wife threatens him with a stick, just like in James’ painting The Irritated Masks, the first in which he introduces masks (1883). When you read Ensor’s letters, you discover that many paintings are disguised family scenes, with the masks masking the true events.

James Ensor, The Irritated Masks

In Bart Ramakers’ tableau, Ensor is visited and courted by both platonic and profane love, bickering with a colleague/critic and misunderstood by his parents, surrounded by the characters from his The Seven Capital Sins dominated by Death: vanity, greed, gluttony, envy, lust, wrath, sloth, and towering above them all: death.

James Ensor, The Seven Capital Sins dominated by Death

The whole scene takes place, of course, in Ensor’s studio, his refuge, as depicted in The Painting Skeleton. There he could devote himself undisturbed to his still lifes and masquerades, although in this scene there are no masks left.

James Ensor, The Painting Skeleton

On the far left, under the bickering General Leman (played here by the Brussels artist Clément Jacques-Vossen), under a Russian hat, a well-spirited skull grins, just like in Skeletons fighting over a Herring.

James Ensor, Skeletons fighting over a Herring

At the top of the scene phantom figures from Demons haunting me emerge through the smoke clouds, a final reference to the tormented nature of the artist.

A final word on James Ensor as a completely unique creator of his own universe. Professor Bart Verschaffel has convincingly demonstrated in recent years where Ensor drew inspiration from: books such as Champfleury’s Histoire de la Caricature and the Bible illustrated by Gustave Doré. As a nod to these recent insights, five bound volumes of Champfleury are located in the lower right corner of Bart Ramakers’ work.

Elle adore le noir is a walk through Ostend initiated by Luc Mangodt (president of CMO), curated by Willem Elias, from March 26 to September 21, 2024.

© Making of foto’s Johan Hespeel

Bart Ramakers, Démons me turlupinant

Models: Clément, Elsa, Renaat, Lady Vengeance, Kathleen, Johan, Willem, Eric, Johan, Luc, Piet, Alexandra, Marc, Carmen
Production manager: Sofie Baert
Light assistant: Marc Smeets
Set photographer: Johan Hespeel
Location: de Traagheid, Tielt, thank you Gilberte, Kathleen and Filip!

© Bart Ramakers 2024