Skull and Bones

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Skulls Fighting Over a Pickled Herring, James Ensor, 1891/Musees Royaux des Beaux Artes de Belgique, Brussels

Skulls Fighting Over a Pickled Herring, James Ensor, 1891/Musees Royaux des Beaux Artes de Belgique, Brussels

James Ensor is one of those artists it’s hard to get a handle on, because unless you’re Belgian, and not many people are, it’s hard to see much of his work. He had a long life — 1860 to 1949. But the period we know him for is brief — the 1880s and ’90s. Plus he worked in discordant styles, influenced by Bosch, Breughel, satirical illustrations of his day, the pell-mell stuff in the family junkshop/giftshop he worked above and whatever the voices in his head were telling him that day.

But this summer MoMA has brought together a sizable selection of his work in the first retrospective he’s had in the U.S. in many years. Odd guy. Angry loner might be a fair description — self-pity was a trap he fell into at any opportunity. (That’s him as the pickled herring in the picture up top, being torn apart by art-critics-as-death’s-heads.) But compelling when he got it right.

This is what I had to say about him in the new issue of Time.

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