Meet James Ensor
Belgium's famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand
Appreciate the man

James Ensor, 1860-1949. I guess it's something about Belgium, like, freaky stuff in the water or something. A tiny parcel of land like Belgium should only produce a dangerously good, dangerously crazy artist once in its lifetime, but Belgium's got (at least) two : Bosch and James 'Baron Jimmy' Ensor. Those two, they're cut from the same cloth, but Ensor got the frayed edge, and he was unraveling even before he became an adult.

Ensor's style is detailed and busy like Bosch or Bruegel, and he mostly painted panoramas filled with figures in various action poses like them, except that Ensor didn't like anyone else but himself. So he painted people drunk, carousing, sinning, with doglike noses, distended lips, black, pupiless eyes. Some wore grotesque masks; others had death's heads on their shoulders. The only normal looking people in any of his paintings were either self-portraits or depictions of Jesus Christ (who, oddly, looked just like Ensor...)

You see, Jimmy was a wee bit delusional. He was totally disconnected from the society; he lived at home with his (supposedly overbearing) mother; he rarely left the place. He hated the crowds, he hated all the sinning and self-indulgence he saw in the world. He somehow became convinced that he was suffering like Christ, and often imagined himself as the Son of God, minus the compassion. This comes through strong in his art. Every painting, every etching, there's a milling crowd, people leering out at the viewer, almost pointing and laughing at you (or, Ensor).

Later on, Jimmy got some juice, and was named a Baron. His art lost a little of that jittery, paranoid quality soon after.

And that's basically the long and short of it. You can stop shaking his hand now - he looks a bit annoyed.

A few other things : Ensor was so far ahead of his time, he seemed backwards. His style prefigured, oh, Expressionism, Surrealism, and Fauvism, and because of that, it was (and is) totally unclassifiable. I find a strong resemblance between his paintings and much of the kook art that's been in vogue for the past 20-odd years. And, his etchings seem to recall a lot of Dürer and a little Daumier to me, but I'm odd like that. Ensor led an art movement called Les XX, or The Twenty, for a very short time, but it broke apart because he just didn't like people.

And, finally, he lived all his life in a town that's expressed in English as either Ostend, Oostendo, or (gasp!) Oostendorp. Nate, we found your long lost great great grandpappy, and boy, this explains a lot about your genes, boy.

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