It's also odd to think that this famed Flemish artist was half-English. He was born in Ostend in 1860 to an English father and a Flemish mother, and held a British passport until 1929 when he was made a Belgian baron. He never visited France. Ensor's father died when he was in his teens and his mother ran a seaside souvenir shop while the bereaved boy had his first painting lessons. Perhaps the carnival masks and sea shells we find in his pictures come from memories of the shop. Ensor would probably have denied this connection. He denied quite a lot of things about himself, as loners do. He said that he owed nothing to Impressionism, but there are paintings at the Barbican which could not have been conceived without some respect for 1870s Parisan art. Ensor also rejected the claim that he was influenced by Turner. He was. It's now plain for all to see, and Ensor's Turneresque paintings are an important part of his evolution.
Turner had few direct followers because he died in 1851, when Pre-Raphaelite realism was in its ascendancy. His fulsome effects were also difficult to imitate without the risk of ludicrous failure. For such an indirect follower as Ensor, however, Turnerian extravagance could be emulated. So we get such ill-judged but brave pictures as the landscape scenes Christ Calming the Storm and The Fall of the Rebellious Angels. The best is Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise. It looks as though some of Turner's sea monsters have started flying through the air. Faultful they may be, but the wonder of these paintings is that they are so unabashed. Ensor made some pretty conventional pictures in his time, especially of bourgeois interiors; but he was also prepared to throw convention away, recklessly staking the outcome of a picture on one personal impulse.
Was this because he was an avant-garde artist? I think not. He had joined the progressive, anti-salon group "Les XX" (ie les vingt) but evidently they preferred to be 19 and rejected him, probably for personal as well as aesthetic reasons. He was in his late twenties, and never again did he have artistic comrades. At just this time he painted his masterpiece, The Entry of Christ into Brussels, which is not at all Turnerian. This enormous, crazy picture was in the Royal Academy's "Ensor to Permeke" exhibition in 1971. It was subsequently bought by the Getty Museum in Malibu and may not travel from California again, given its fragile condition. Its absence from the Barbican show is a disappointment. But we do have the sight of a hand-coloured etching of 1898, 10 years later, which reproduces the general aspect of the painting, adds many bizarre details (a religious banner advertising Colman's mustard, for instance), and in other ways makes the mural-sized canvas into a little theatre of private, obsessive fantasy.
Ensor was a most accomplished etcher, just as he could do all sorts of things with paint and brush. He may have wished not to be so expert and assured. The Barbican exhibition shows that he was seeking a kind of art that would combine popular caricature with the more official modes of oil on canvas. This explains the populist theme and deliberately "incorrect" style of The Entry of Christ into Brussels. There's a persuasive theory that Ensor - Ensor the British subject - hoped to make a Belgian version of the cartooning style of Rowlandson and Gillray. Only one thing stood in the way of this unusual ambition. Cartoonists need a secular turn of mind. Ensor was a religious man, albeit of an unorthodox sort. He had a sincere belief in the existence of Christ and Christ's interest in the modern world. He also believed that He had an overwhelming interest in James Ensor, the lonely painter of Ostend. And with such a mixture of influences and hopes the painter retreated from the world.
He wrote: "I have joyfully shut myself up in the solitary atmosphere dominated by a mask that is full of violence, light and brilliance." Masks are such a cliche of figurative art these days that it's easy to forget that Ensor's masks were original. There were precedents, to be sure, but mainly in paintings of social events: Venetian carnivals, French balls or Flemish kermesses. Ensor wished to make the mask an instrument of his self-absorption and unhappiness. Sometimes the theme is convincing; sometimes it's too much like dressing up. Among the other things he never quite achieved, Ensor could have been a magical costume painter. After all, a mask is both a caricature and a concentrated form of dress. I wish he had attempted the nude. He couldn't, for to paint someone else's naked body disallows the kind of introspection in which Ensor found a spooky type of self-satisfaction.
! Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to 14 Dec.Reuse content