Before you do anything else, if you’re not familiar with James Ensor, have a listen to this song: I don’t often foist my musical tastes on you (or everyone would know how many hours of my life I’ve wasted watching Journey concert footage from that brief but glorious era of Perry/Rolie overlap), but They Might be Giants have done an excellent job of condensing most of the pertinent background info on James Ensor into a minute and a half, so I’m letting them do the explanatory work for me. I’ve been a TMBG fan since I was about 12, so after having listened to that song dozens of times over the years, you can see why I jumped at the opportunity to “meet James Ensor” when it presented itself.
Ostend (or Oostende) is only about 13 miles from Brugge, so it was easy enough for us to cruise up there after procuring the world’s smallest rental car (ok, so it was a 4 door Smart Car, and I suppose the classic 2 door model would have technically been smaller, but believe me, there was no way more than two people would have fit in there. The backseat barely held a backpack and my purse). We’d chosen an exceptionally windy day for our visit, which coincidentally turned out to be the day of Ostend’s kite festival (we didn’t know about it in advance – I only spotted the posters advertising the festival when we approached the town, so it was a nice bonus), so after parking in an underground lot, and fighting through what felt like gale-force winds at street level, I was initially dismayed to find that the Ensor Museum appeared very much shut that day. The museum is only open from 10-12 anyway, and then again in the afternoon after 2; we’d arrived just past 10, so we figured we’d go for a little walk (“against the wind” – Bob Seger this time) and then return, in case they were just a little late about opening that day.
However, when we returned, the window shutter was still down, and there was no sign of life (there was a sign on the door, but it was in Flemish, and just looked like a poster advertising an exhibition or something, not directions on what to do), so I sadly settled for just having a picture in front of the place and was about to leave when a Belgian couple turned up. Unlike us, they were not too chickenshit to pound on the front door, and sure enough, a woman emerged and let them in, so we quickly followed behind them (despite my attempts to build up suspense, the photos of the interior probably gave away the fact that we eventually made it inside). So the moral is: if you try to visit and the shutters are down, don’t give up until you’ve knocked on the door and rang the bell (I suspect the shutters may have been down to protect the windows, the wind being so terrible). The house is very small, but admission is just 2 euro, so that was ok. Besides, I was getting to “meet James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter” (which I sang about twenty times that day). James Ensor spent almost his entire long life in Ostend, though he lived at his parents’ house for the first two-thirds of it (“he lived with his mother and the torments of Christ”); like James Ensorhuis, this also contained a souvenir shop. The house where the Ensor Museum is based belonged to his aunt and uncle, but he inherited it after their death, and lived there from 1917 (when he was 57) until his own death in 1949.
The main things to see within the house are the Blue Room and the dining room upstairs (there is also a documentary to watch, but it was in Flemish, so after looking at some of his paintings on the documentary, there wasn’t much point in watching the rest), which is where Ensor worked and entertained guests. I feel like I keep using the phrase “fabulously weird” to describe Belgium, but that really is the best term for it. I don’t know why after listening to that damn song so many times, I never bothered to look up Ensor’s paintings, because they are bizarre and amazing and I was missing out. The house was kind of like a classier and slightly less creepy version of the house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original film, which scares the crap out of me, but is still better than that dreadful remake), with a dead bird in the corner, a skull wearing a hat on the mantle, and a mannequin clad in one of his aunt’s souvenir Carnival masks sitting at the table. Although the paintings are reproductions, the brochure informs me that the furniture is authentic, so I’m going to choose to believe that James Ensor was this strange, and I love the guy for it.
Like many artists, Ensor had different phases in his career, from his obsession with “the torments of Christ” resulting in a lot of creepy zombie-Jesus type pictures (even though Ensor was apparently an atheist, which makes me like him even more), to his many unusual self-portraits, and his fascination with the scatalogical (many of his paintings contain bare buttocks and fart clouds, which seems to indicate that we even have the same juvenile sense of humour), all of which are represented here. He also had a thing for skulls (I’m particularly partial to this painting of two skulls fighting over a pickled herring). His style seems to have been all over the place, and is hard to pin down, but maybe that’s what I like so much about him. I think I can safely say that James Ensor is my new favourite painter (and he even comes with a nifty song. So does Van Gogh, but that Don McLean song is so depressing. I want to burst into tears every time I hear it).
His aunt’s original souvenir shop has also been preserved (albeit with the addition of some new things for sale), and contains cases filled with Carnival masks (including a man with a goat head bursting out of his face) and some shells and things. There’s also a large preserved turtle, and some other taxidermy, like a wall-case with several Feegee style mermaids inside of it (head of a monkey, body of a fish).
Amongst the modern items for sale, we picked out a postcard and a most excellent print of Ensor’s The Baths at Ostend (or possibly The Baths of Ostend; I’ve seen it listed both ways). In retrospect, hauling a four foot poster tube home probably wasn’t the smartest idea (though we took the Eurostar, so it was fine on the train, it was more transporting it from our hotel to the station, then to Brussels, into a locker for the day, and then through security and back to our house from King’s Cross), but I think it was worth it, as the piece is full of fart-based and other jokes that you only begin to appreciate when you’ve stared at the print for a while (the copy of it the museum had is pictured below).
I loved James Ensorhuis. It was teeny, but just so creepy and amazing. And now I really “appreciate the man.” 4/5.
Still, that’s not all there is to Ostend. We also found the old church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1896 (James Ensor sketched out a rather mystical drawing showing his suggestions for the re-build, because of course he did), but a tower remains, and there is a spectacular scene hidden underneath the crucifix on the front – what appears to be some sinners burning in the flames of hell. After exploring Ostend, I can begin to appreciate how spending his whole life in this town may have warped James Ensor’s mind in fantastic ways.
There was also that kite festival I mentioned at the start. Though it was almost TOO windy to be flying kites, they still had them whipping around on the beach, and there were some excellent kites out there. I was partial to the alligator, though I think my boyfriend favoured the shark, and we both thought the witch and ghosts were neat. But that’s still not all there is to Ostend, oh no. In my next post, I’ll talk about the AtlantikWall museum, which is just a few miles down the road from the centre of Ostend.