Politics, Protest, Power – The Art of James Ensor

By Michael Jette

''If we had nothing else of Ensor’s work besides the etchings, he would seem like a great master, an unusual, perfect artist to us''

Paul Haesaerts, James Ensor, published by Hatje, Stuttgart, 1957

A near complete collection of James Ensor etchings will go on sale in the Prints and Multiples in London on 27 September. Including prints of extreme rarity such as Alimentation Doctrinaire, première planche, La Belgique au XIXe siècle, and Les étoiles au cimetière, this is one of the most important single owner collections of James Ensor prints ever to be offered at auction. The broad range of subject matter encompasses delicate landscapes, townscapes and seascapes, celebrated self-portraits and sardonic portraits of politicians, religious and fantastical scenes – each suffused with Ensor’s uniquely imaginative vision.

JAMES ENSOR, LA BELGIQUE AU XIXE SIÈCLE (D. 90; T., E. 81), 1889. ESTIMATE £30,000–50,000.

Ensor’s reputation as a painter of carnivals and crowds –''the painter of masks''[1] – has perhaps overshadowed his intensely satirical and political side. In the 1880s, a decade marred by personal tragedy and social unrest, James Ensor started producing his most powerful satirical and political subjects. His work, which until then had been a modernist form of naturalism, was becoming more fantastic and grotesque and beginning to directly challenge the social order in Belgium.


Ensor’s depictions of King Leopold II in both Alimentation Doctrinaire, première planche and La Belgique au XIXe siècle, quite clearly illustrate his disdain for the Belgian ruling classes and his support of the growing socialist movements. In both compositions, Ensor uses text to overtly demonstrate the reform demands of the socialist parties; Suffrage Universale (Universal Suffrage), Service Personnel (National Service) and Instruction Obligatoire (Compulsory education). In Alimentation Doctrinaire, première planche, by depicting King Leopold II defecating into the open mouths of the masses, we Ensor is not only commenting on the negligence of Belgium’s ruling classes to the demands of the socialist parties, but also on the willingness of the people to accept the status quo.


JAMES ENSOR, LE PISSEUR (D., T., E. 12), 1887. ESTIMATE £5,000–7,000.

Ensor's satire was not reserved for politicians and the ruling classes, but also for his critics. In the highly comical print Le Pisseur of 1887, Ensor depicts a bourgeois gentleman urinating on a wall which has been graffitied with the phrase ‘ENSOR EST UN FOU’ (Ensor is a madman). As Ensor's style had begun to develop towards the macabre and grotesque, he faced much criticism. This scene is interpreted as a clever, and rather literal, response to these critics.


JAMES ENSOR, INSECTES SINGULIERS  (D., T., E. 46), 1888. ESTIMATE £5,000–7,000.

Despite Ensor’s wicked disdain for authority and the social order in the late 19th century, he gained acceptance among the ruling classes later in his career and by 1929 was made Baron by King Albert I. As a result of this Ensor attempted to remove some of his more controversial prints from circulation. This included Alimentation Doctrinaire, première planche and La Belgique au XIXe siècle, accounting for their great rarity. When Delteil published the first catalogue raisonné of James Ensor’s graphic work in 1925, he was not able to find any impressions of these two prints, and when Croquez published the second catalogue raisonné, he said of the works: ''no prints are known to be on the market, we possessed four states but they all disappeared during the war.''


There are many artists and illustrators who have used similar methods of image making to depict the world around them. Social Commentary in the visual arts was perhaps first most successfully demonstrated in the works of William Hogarth, whose seminal series A Rake’s Progress, produced in 1733, was the forerunner for the social documentary practiced so widely today. These candid images gave way to Ensor – who was able to record scenes that his contemporaries would be all too familiar with, and which hold real relevance in today’s political landscape. Many generations of satirical cartoonists such as Gerald Scarfe – whose drawings for Private Eye and the Sunday Times perfectly capture the political mood of modern times – and artists such as Jake & Dinos Chapman and Grayson Perry, have frequently revisited the past in order to critique the society in which they live. These exceptional Ensor prints offer a frank portrait of 19th Century Belgium; capturing the civic complexities that still ring true to this day.


[1] Émile Verhaeren, James Ensor, published by G. Van Oest & Cie, Brussels, 1908

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