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exhibition: James Ensor: Paintings

date: 15 March - 12 May 2007

Peter Freeman, Inc., presents the first New York exhibition in thirty years of paintings by Belgian artist James Ensor (1860-1949). Most of the paintings in this intimate exhibition have never been shown previously in the United States.

Born in Ostend, Belgium, James Ensor is regarded as one of the forefathers of Belgian modern art. Except for the three years of study at the Brussels Academy, he lived in the resort coastal town of Ostend his entire life, working in his grandmother's souvenir shop. The collection of works from 1876 to 1941 in this exhibition attest to the importance of his hometown both as subject and as inspiration. As a founding member of Les XX (The Twenty), the Brussels-based artists' group that promoted modern art throughout Europe, Ensor was an active member of avant-garde circles, despite his physical isolation in Ostend. His work, however, proved too radical even for the "vingtistes," for they refused the exhibition of Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Like van Gogh and Munch, Ensor worked in relative isolation on a new type of painting unbeholden to, although not without knowledge of, Neo-Impressionism and Symbolism. Although he exhibited his paintings and prints throughout Europe, criticism against his work was fierce, and institutional recognition was slow to arrive. But it did arrive eventurally: in 1929, he was made a baron by King Albert of Belgium.

James Ensor: Paintings traces Ensor's practice from its earliest beginnings to his final works, like Christ in Agony (1939) and The Spirit of Music (1940/41). His early seascapes and interiors reflect the influence of Impressionism, yet even these early works from 1876 hint at the idiosyncratic style that would emerge most forcefully with his mask paintings. Of the several mask paintings on view, Masks Looking at Playing Cards (1896), not included in the catalogue raisonne, is exhibited for the first time. The bold colors and grotesqueries of these paintings continued in his later work.

Though Ensor's name has become synonymous with masks, skeletons, and carnival imagery, James Ensor: Paintings demonstrates the stylistic diversity of Ensor's practice. These personal and idiosyncratic paintings demonstrate how fascinating – and how relevant – Ensor's work remains.