James Ensor: Art of the Carnival

A short trip down to London will soon be in the offing, as last month saw the opening of an exhibition of work by one of my favourite artists, the Belgian painter James Ensor, at the Royal Academy. It’s curated by a fellow countryman of Ensor's, the artist Luc Tuymans, who has brought together a collection of paintings, drawings and etchings, including some key works.

James Ensor’s work is a surreal, theatre of grotesques; absurd, satirical and profound, populated by carnival masks, skeletons and demented demons. His colourful palette, black humour and vivid imagination certainly had an influence on me as a painter. To me, he seemed out of step with his time which was, of course, what made him unique.  His fantastical scenes and his tendency towards satire, place him in a tradition of artists that includes Hieronymous Bosch, Goya and Hogarth - also amongst my favourite painters and printmakers - and he signals their influence through his work.

I acknowledged Ensor's influence on my own work in 2007-8, when I painted my ‘Starmen’ series of paintings. With that series of work, I was interested in storytelling within the context of fine art painting. I wanted to create a narrative that would evolve with each new painting, which would ultimately have as much in common with the sequential story of a comic book, as it would a series of paintings. The paintings together would (I hoped) suggest a continuous journey and I was searching for a figure that I could use as a guide for my central characters (the ‘Starmen’); a hero that I could create my own mythology around. Ensor’s recurrent reference to religion and his depiction of himself as a latter-day Christ in some of his paintings and drawings, gave me the idea of using the Belgian painter as a lead character in many of my paintings. In so doing, I intended to further embroider a story around a fictitious ‘Ensor’ that the artist had already created for himself.

This current exhibition is the largest collection of James Ensor's work to be displayed, since I finished that series of work and I’m excited to see, first-hand, so many of my personal favourites before the exhibition closes in January next year.

Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans runs until 29th January 2017.