Van Gogh •
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The Germanic spirit that so violently separated the self and the material world had a profound effect on its artists: witness the tortuously
emotional lives of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch. A third to suffer a similar fate was the Belgian, James Ensor, who wrote, "I was born at Ostend, On April 13, 1860, on a Friday, the day of Venus. At my birth, Venus came toward me, smiling, and we looked into each other's eyes. She smelled pleasantly of salt water." The mysteries of the sea were to continue to influence Ensor's art but his conceptions of the world around him would not remain so pleasant. His parents ran four souvenir-curio shops in the seaside resort of Ostend catering to the English Channel-crossers as well as to the continental Europeans and peasants from the countryside. Ensor's childhood was spent idling away his time, roaming the dunes of the old port. His childhood was crammed full of strange objects. "In my parent's shop, I had seen the wavy lines and the serpentine forms of beautiful seashells; the iridescent lights of mother-of-pearl, the rich tones of delicate chinoiseries." In the attic in which Ensor made his studio is where his parents kept damaged and unsold objects from the shop. These objects, along with the masks Ensor's parents sold at religious carnivals, became the sources for his art. In 1877 Ensor entered the Brussels academy where he stayed for three years, drawing and painting. He returned to Ostend, and by 1884 was painting the masks and skeletons which made him famous, and which more and more evidenced a profoundly morbid turn in his personality.
Masks, ghosts and demons people his art in canvases that otherwise are bathed in gentle light and vibrant colors. Although the objects
of Ensor's canvases are, for the most part, inanimate, they give the impression of having been somehow surprised in the midst of some diabolical activity. From his early twenties Ensor's work evokes the suspicion with which he seemed to regard both his fellow man and the inanimate objects that surrounded him. Ensor was completely isolated in the hallucinatory world of his creation, an isolation that is revealed in his portrayal of the human figure behind a mask, which revealed all of his baser and more destructive aspects. His art is filled with images in which men exist only as phantoms or ghosts, eroded by death or contained in a peculiar experience of space-imaginary, shriveling into shallow areas, rushing again at a great distance as something new and monstrous. These themes are not artistic exaggerations, as they would be in the later surrealistic paintings of such artists as Salvador Dali, but are devised, rather, to clarify a real situation, compulsive projections of mental states.
In its historical context, Ensor's art reflects the tensions of his time. He exalted rather than minimized these tensions and identified himself with them. He was seized by the tragic image of life and the alienation of the self from the world. During his lifetime, Ensor's art of mystical expressionism was little understood. A generation later the Surrealists would discover many things in his art including a controlled violence, and the ability to express the inexpressible in forms experienced in the dream-like, or comatose state of the subconscious; and thus he would be declared a precursor to their own work.