Visual Arts: So long, and thanks for all the fish

James Ensor championed all things horrid, as Matthew Sweet discovers
In 1888, the Belgian artist James Ensor dashed off a pencil drawing of his aunt asleep in an armchair. It is a characteristic piece. The old woman dozes glumly as, from the corners of her attic room, monstrous night visitors billow up to menace her; saucer-eyed succubi with isosceles teeth and disembodied heads weighed down with huge funnel ears.

It seems to be a typically late 19th-century essay in morbid fantasia. An absintheur's bad trip. An image that might swim into your head if you'd stayed up late reading Villiers de l'Isle-Adam after a dinner of iffy haddock.

So what was Ensor on? Was he some drug-swashed aesthete with a predilection for the green stuff. That's what the miles of paintings, etchings and drawings assembled for the artist's huge retrospective at the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels would seem to argue, in room upon room of skulls, imps, hobgoblins and dead things.

Take the bus to the Ensor House Museum in Ostend, however, and you'll soon see that he didn't require a wormwood supplement to envision such creatures. The Ensor family owned a peculiar souvenir shop that offered shell sculptures, lace, carnival masks and taxidermal oddities to the town's population of holiday-makers. Life in this establish- ment was unconventional.

"The confused mass of eccentric objects was constantly being knocked over by one of several cats, squawking parrots and a monkey," Ensor wrote. "I spent many hours in those beasts' company. The shop smelt musty, the sea shells were full of monkey wee and the cats would snuggle down among the most precious pieces of lace."

In the window, there sits a glass case occupied by three horrid little creatures, formed by carefully stitching the head and torso of a Japanese monkey to the back end of a salmon. When is a surrealist not a surrealist? When his home is full of incontinent monkeys and desiccated mermaids.

You might say something similar about other cultural products of the fin-de-siecle. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), for instance, does not shift into some symbolist otherworld once its narrator, Marlow, has witnessed the depravities of Mister Kurtz. As Adam Hochschild's recent biography of King Leopold II confirms, such events were occurring all over the Belgian Congo at the behest of the monarch himself - the same king who stands in effigy on the seafront at Ostend, towering over representations of his cowed African subjects. Each morning, as he took his constitutional along the beach, Ensor would have passed this statue.

He might have encountered other monsters, too. After having been robbed by his manager in Brussels, Joseph Carey Merrick - better known as "The Elephant Man" - made his way to Ostend in order to find a steamer willing to take him back to England. Who needs drugs when your life is touched by such events?

As he spent most of his life living over the shop, and appears to have had no significant sexual relationships, the artist's biography is best summarised by a list of his eccentricities. He was reputed to play only the black notes on his harmonium. He was a fierce campaigner against vivisection. His favourite colour was that of an "emotionally moved nymph's thigh". He once said that he would like to die "like a flea crushed on a virgin's white breast". When asked which military event he most admired, he replied: "The Rape of the Sabine Women." Early on in his career, he was a savage satirist. When he was made a baron in the 1940s, he destroyed some of his nastiest cartoons - notably, an etching of royals, churchmen and police officials dropping long columnar turds upon the heads of the Belgian people.

Ensor's reputation is not strong outside Belgium, possibly because most of his work has remained in his homeland. (With one notable exception: his masterpiece, Christ's Entry into Brussels (1889), which was shanghaied by the John Paul Getty Museum in the 1980s.)

In Ostend, however, a souvenir industry has been generated around his image. You can drink at the James Ensor pub, eat James Ensor chocolate and knock back James Ensor fizzy white wine. You can take, as I did, a guided tour around the old curiosity shop, where the guide points to a reproduction of Ensor's La Raie (1892), and explains: "The skate has a sexual significance. When the fishermen of Ostend were away at sea for long periods, they used them for sexual relief." Involuntarily, two images come to mind: some old Belgian sea dog emptying himself through some defenceless flatfish; and a difficult English customer in a waterfront restaurant smacking his lips in anxious puzzlement.

It's just the kind of thing that would have appealed to Ensor's sensibilities. Wilful perversity saturates his work. Everywhere you look there's a carnivalesque horror show being enacted, or something filthily physical on display.

In The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse (1889), a Punch-nosed crone with a trail of snot dangling from her nose surveys a pile of broken carnival figures, as a Jolson-type blackface figure throws up his hands in horror. In Old Woman With Masks (1889), a wizened female face peers out through the canvas, surrounded by grinning painted masks. In Skeletons Trying to Warm Themselves (1889), a gang of cadavers hunch around a glowing brazier. In The Frightful Musicians (1891), an assortment of mouldering shellfish have formed a grotesque orchestra. In The Bad Doctors (1892), a bloated patient has his intestines unspooled by a cabal of lunatic physicians.

All of which might indicate that Ensor was as marginal an oddity as the stuffed monsters in his mother's stock room. As Robert Rosenblum notes in the catalogue that accompanies the show, "like William Blake, he may... be considered the lone master of a private universe". But for all his sickly eccentricity, there are, I think, strong genealogical connections between Ensor and other Flemish painters.

It was, after all, only a few miles up the road in `s-Hertogenbosch that Hieronymous Bosch produced his diseased visions of the Apocalypse. Explore the rest of the Musees royaux, and you'll see the continuities between his work and that of, say, Pieter Breughel. Look at the writhing things being skewered and split in The Fall of the Rebel Angels, and you'll see a demonic menagerie comparable with anything in Ensor. Indeed, Ensor turned explicitly to Breughel for his etching, Demons Thrashing the Angels and Archangels (1888), a perverse reversal of the battle for heaven in which flying swordfish impale the heavenly host like cocktail olives, and devilish figures assault angels with hacksaws.

The obsession with the masks, too, was not just the hobby of some Norman Bates-like loner, but a widespread fin-de-siecle preoccupation. Yeats and Wilde both theorised on the mask, seizing upon it because it allowed them to make being two-faced and inconsistent into a kind of Noh theatre. And Ensor's enthusiasm for the grotesque second skin didn't die with him among the mermaids. It was commuted into the work of Emil Nolde, and most visibly, perhaps, into Picasso's bug-eyed portraits. So it's hard to classify Ensor along with, for example, Richard Dadd or Aubrey Beardsley, as an eccentric who never brought his influence to bear upon a broader artistic tradition.

Maybe it's because the weirdness going on inside Ensor's head - and, more importantly, in his living room - that removed a necessity for the chemical stimulation which propelled dozens of other artists down decadence's dead ends. Paint a narcotic vision, and you'll find that nobody really knows what you're banging on about. Paint a monstrous mask, however, and you generate the possibility for future generations to pick it up and try it on themselves.

`Ensor': Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels to February 2000