James Ensor can without hesitation be considered one of the most pioneering artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Recent retrospectives in Paris and New York have confirmed his international importance, but this is by no means new. The international avant-garde already acknowledged Ensor as a pioneer of modern art during his lifetime, witness the visits to his studio in Ostend made by such figures as Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde and others.
Hareng Saur: Ensor and contemporary art takes a new step in the approach to Ensor’s oeuvre. The exhibition shows that Ensor has retained his topicality even on today’s art scene. He is taken out of his historical context and approached decisively as a timeless artist whose themes and technique are inseparably linked to the practices of many contemporary artists.
Even at the start of the twenty-first century, Ensor’s subjects and points of view remain resoundingly up to date. Such subjects as the mask and the grotesque, social critique, the self-portrait, the identification with Christ, the masses, satire and death have after all lost none of their relevance in contemporary visual art. The exhibition makes unexpected links and demonstrates that in his visionary oeuvre Ensor pursued a goal that connects him to numerous contemporary artists.
The title of the exhibition comes from Ensor’s painting Squelettes se disputant un hareng saur (Skeletons fighting over a smoked herring). The title is an example of Ensor’s unique wordplay (’(h)ar-eng saur’ = ‘art Ensor’), illustrates his very personal humour and at the same time shows that his work contained several layers. The title also contains a concealed reference to the fact that Ensor’s work led to controversy among critics during his lifetime.
At the start of the twenty-first century his oeuvre provides just as much reason for discussion of its meaning and influence. Hareng Saur: Ensor and contemporary art contributes to a better understanding of his place in the development of present-day art by showing his work alongside that of other artists in a clear, open and vivid exhibition.
In addition to an extensive selection of Ensor’s work (paintings, drawings and prints), the exhibition also includes contemporary kindred spirits and counterparts in the genres of painting, sculpture, video, installation, performance, drawing, etc. Ensor’s visual world is thereby linked to those of Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Francis Alÿs, Huma Bhabha, Jake & Dinos Chapman, George Condo, Thierry De Cordier, Marlene Dumas, Thomas Hirschhorn, Tomasz Kowalski, Jonathan Meese, Bruce Nauman, Ugo Rondinone, Dana Schutz, Cindy Sherman, Raymond Pettibon, Thomas Schu¨tte, Thomas Zipp and others.
Each of these works is shown in a context where a limited number of works by Ensor is shown as a point of departure. This gives rise to an interaction in which connections are made, confrontations entered into and nuances distinguished.