It's been some three decades since James Ensor has had a major museum exhibition in the US, which makes MoMA's new show
a rare pleasure. Ensor's reputation, especially among Americans, is as something of an idiosyncratic art world outlier — a strange proto-modernist/expressionist who spent most of his life holed up in the attic of his mother's house. (The classic TMBG song
reinforces this perception.) What's most surprising about this show, then, is Ensor's unvarnished ambition. You can see it in the physical scale of his works; often drawings and genre pictures, works that are typically small, blown up to immense sizes. You can see it in his aggressive confrontation with the artistic avant-garde and with the political and social establishments of his time. And you can definitely see it in his persistent reference to the grand Flemish painting tradition (Ensor was Belgian, though his father was English), in particular an almost obsessive preoccupation with the greatest of all Flemish painters, Peter Paul Rubens. There are echoes of and references to Rubens throughout the Ensor catalog, some more blatant than others. He repeatedly painted himself in the guise of Rubens, most prominently in the extraordinary self-portrait with masks (above left) from 1889. At right is the Rubens self-portrait from which it is drawn, painted at the very end of the artist's life. As it suggests, Rubens was no slouch himself in the ambition department. Appropriately enough, both men were granted titles of nobility for their work. As the song says, appreciate the men.