James Ensor at the Drawing Center

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In 1882, just before his death, Manet was made chevalier of France's Legion of Honor. Four years later the Impressionists, who had been exhibiting together since 1874, held their last group show. The 1880s, the first post-Impressionist decade, also witnessed Van Gogh's 10-year ecstatic swan dive (he died in 1890); Gaugin's conversion from stockbroker to leader of a new Symbolist avant-garde; and Toulouse-Lautrec's artistic preparations for what would become rapid-fire sketches of the butt-ends of Parisian nightlife. Like the approaching century, a new artistic temperament was afoot. More diffuse than once revolutionary Impressionism, the new art turned with a vengeance to themes emotive and subjective, forecasting a condition the world would later recognize as 20th-century alienation.

Few artists, except perhaps Edward Munch, plumbed that frustration deeper and more effectively than James Ensor. The Belgian Ensor, master of satirically symbolic works, turned the faces people wear when they emerge onto the street into horrible masks; bitterly mocked religious, political and artistic establishments; brazenly reinterpreted Christian doctrine according to his own radical politics; and never ceased laughing, even at one of his more serious subjects, himself, in the case of his numerous self-portraits.

Incorrigibly dissatisfied and influenced by realists and fantasists alike, Ensor hewed to an unsteady, nearly unclassifiable middle path between the grotesquerie of Bosch and the social satire of Honore Daumier at a time made turbulent by bloody labor strikes and fin de siecle pessimism. James Ensor was a progenitor of German expressionism and a Surrealist avant la lettre; he prepared the way like an artistic John the Baptist for new attitudes in a new century. He went so far as to make an hilarious portrait of himself as a skeleton in the year 1960, and turned his habit of looking forward to look back into an embracingly derisory, often eerily anticipatory practice that resonates far into our own time.

Drawings always occupied a prominent place in Ensor's oeuvre. Impelled partly by sheer cussedness and by the conviction that drawing was not secondary in importance to painting, he exhibited his drawings as autonomous works of art throughout his career. The size and composition of Ensor's drawings suggest that the artist ranked his works on paper as highly as his paintings. Seizing on this idea and the amazing paucity of Ensor's work in this country, the Drawing Center has recently put together "Between Street and Mirror," an exhibition of more than 90 drawings and etchings Ensor made during one of his most fertile periods, the years between 1880 and 1900.

The exhibit begins with work the young Ensor made after barely graduating from Brussels' Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and moves step by step through the artist's incipient development, through a middle ground of novel experimentation, arriving eventually at the liberated, ghoulish graphic style that is signature Ensor. Hung first in the exhibition are a set of sketchbook silhouettes the 20-year-old made evidently on the fly; then copies after works by Daumier, Delacroix and Turner; next come competent realist portraits of fishermen and friends he made in his seaside hometown of Ostend; and finally a group of intensely labored, twice-hatched still-lifes the artist drew and redrew with a mind to inventing a set of highly original, uniquely disturbing effects.

These drawings, done in black chalk, conte crayon or pencil on one or more sheets of paper, were begun in 1890 and finished only when Ensor returned to them some five years later. Juxtaposing sets of hands, the faces of sleeping family members and evil genies onto concentrated, realist chiaroscuro treatments of the household clock, the family piano and the grating over the fireplace, he experimented with a direct, if widely unacknowledged ancestor of montage while imputing a mysterious layer of reality onto the unimpeachable normalcy of bourgeois living. Ensor, exploring his own household, or at least that of his parents, was among the first visual artists to concentrate on the hidden world behind middle-class appearances. The ghosts and goblins lurking around the furniture of his drawing room turn out to be both preternatural beings and, in 90s lingo, harbingers of repression and dysfunctionality.

From unforgiving, unnatural family portraits like My Mother or Sloth to grotesqueries like Plague Above, Plague Below, Plague All Around!?a scene of top-hatted, parasol-toting middle-class leisure befouled by caricatures of the wretched lower classes?Ensor gives free rein to his fantastical imagination and to a gregarious, bristling line. Sourced from a photograph of an outing with friends and enlivened by the artist's ungirdled id, the latter drawing quickly loses its grip on observable reality, inaugurating instead a universe peopled by fanciful caricatures set inside an absurdly fictitious space. Beholden to the laws of Ensor's purposefully undependable perspective, the artist's trenchant social criticism wed an increasingly restless sense of form, producing in turn literally incredible results. Travesties of his previous attempts at naturalist description, the Belgian's work henceforth moved toward darkly comical personal and communal narratives?a realm that critic Sue Canning has correctly identified as the roiling, inspired arena Ensor established between the bookend worlds of "private fantasy and public vision."

In time, Ensor became expert at fusing communal narratives, like the life of Christ and contemporary events. Take one of the series of large-scale drawings on view at the Drawing Center in which Ensor depicts the entry of Christ into Brussels: drawn as if from a balcony overlooking a teeming boulevard, he packed his picture with the jostling forms of working men and women and collaged the face of Emile Littre, a philosopher well known for his interpretation of Christ as a revolutionary, directly onto the figure of the drum major leading the parade. Another work, Death Pursuing the Human Flock, a copper etching that features a skeletal, rapier-wielding image of death floating above a busy Belgian street, invokes Goya's black humored Disparates, while making explicit the themes that would preoccupy Ensor for the rest of his days: death, cruelty, the erotic, the masquerade.

Referred to as "le peintre des masques," he understood, again from Goya, the use of masks in pointing up the reality behind appearances. Revealing rather than hiding the inherent negative qualities they try to conceal, the crowded masquerade in a work like Masks We Are or Intriguing Masks established the artist as the ultimate gloomy interpreter of life's gay pageant. He was skeptical about nearly everything except his own genius, and poked time and again behind the genteel, polished facade of modernity and found, in the words of one contemporaneous critic, "the grotesque carnival of life, [that] which has suddenly materialized before the eyes of those who seek its meaning."

"Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor," through July 21 at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster St. (betw. Grand & Broome Sts.), 219-2166.

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