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Transcript of 'Old Lady With Masks' podcast

Welcome everybody to July's picture of the month.

Was anybody here for the tour? No? Oh good. There might be a little overlap. I may be telling some of the same jokes.

This July picture of the month comes to us courtesy of the museum at Ghent. The Museum of Fine Art in Ghent. It's part of an exhibition. There's one oil, thirty etchings and three drawings. It's in the way of being a reciprical loan because National Museums Liverpool have lent to Ghent four paintings from the Walker and the Lady Lever has lent 'The Scapegoat'. It's not gone yet, you can still see it. It's part of an exhibition that Ghent is doing called 'The British Vision - observance and imagination in British art from 1750 to 1950'. So, if you're in Ghent in the next couple of months you can see a marvellous exhibition of British art.

We, unlike the people of Ghent, who have lost their Ensor in exchange for our Scapegoat, we have the opportunity to view the Ensor and 'The Scapegoat' on the same day. There's a slight overlap, I don't know when it's going but take the opportunity now, I think it's still there.

Such loans as these are arranged very often to complement works in the collection. Either you have a piece of work that actually fits well into the Lady Lever collection. Or, it's lent as a contrast. The most notable example in the last five years or so was the loan of the portrait by Picasso, the very early Cubist portrait by Picasso which was lent by Berlin in exchange for the loan of 'The Scapegoat' as it happens. 'The Scapegoat' goes all over the place, it's a much-travelled goat.

We could have got from Berlin something which would be comparable. Perhaps another Pre-Raphaelite painting that would have fit well into the collection. Or we get something that wouldn't fit at all well and it will produce a stark contrast. Like the Picasso. There's nothing like that Picasso portrait in this gallery. And there is absolutely nothing like this in the Lady Lever collection.

This is a picture that Lord Leverhulme would not have touched with a barge pole.

It forms a marvellous bit of grit in the oyster. It's stark and it's a wonderful contrast. The painting is dated 1889. The etchings all date from 1886 to 1904 and the drawings are dated from 1880 to 1885. His best work, his most abrasive and disturbing, was done between 1885 and the turn of the century. Partly because for the last fifty years of his life, he died in 1949, he was comparatively happy. He didn't have so much to be grumpy and abrasive and poisonous about.

In 1896 for instance he got his first one man show in Brussels which was national recognition of his status as an artist. He sold his first painting to the State in 1896. In 1929 he was actually made a Baron by King Leopold. As a result of being made a Baron he became very, very respectable. He actually is supposed to have bought up every copy of the etching through there, showing the King and all the representatives of the Church defecating on the people. His most scabrous comment on the Belgian State. Once he was made a Baron by King Leopold he tried to close that particular avenue of his work.

So, in the last fifty years he mellowed. What you're seeing here is his best work from his prime.

The name Ensor will always be dredged up from somebody's memory during that parlour game, 'Name 10 Famous Belgians'. We've all played it. Magritte, somebody will say Hercule Poirot, then somebody says he's fictitious he doesn't count. But James Ensor is a famous Belgian. But only partly because he was half-Belgian. He probably doesn't count. James Edouard Sidney Ensor, as his first and third Christian names suggest, was half English.

His father was an English engineer who married a woman called Maria Catherina Haegheman. In his autiobiography, Ensor said, 'I was born at Ostend on April 13 1860 on a Friday, the day of Venus. At my birth, Venus came towards me smiling and we looked into each other's eyes. She smelled pleasantly of seawater'.

Ostend was, and is, a seaside resort, specialising in fish. Marvellous fish trade. There's a carnival poster round the corner there with a portrait of a man facing a portrait of a turbot. Big on turbot, Ostend. It's a seaside resort and it would have been like living in Blackpool or Bognor. Great during the season, the summer, marvellous. People came from all around. King Leopold came to Ostend every summer, it was one of his pleasure grounds. Off season Ostend must have been pretty dreary.

Off season Ostend was enlivened for a couple of weeks by the Carnival. The Carnival at Ostend was one of the biggest and most important carnivals in Belgium. The carnival is a north European tradition. They don't go much for Lenten carnivals further south. Partly because you need a sort of dreary rain-sodden atmosphere to make a carnival worth having. Your enlivened by the carnival during the Lenten period of February and March.

His mother, Maria Catherina Haegheman, cashed in on the carnival. They owned a chain of four shops. Two of them in Ostend and two of them elsewhere in Belgium. It was a chain of novelty shops, the Belgian equivalent of 'Kiss me quick!'. They sold hats, novelties, curios, chinoiserie, sea shells and they sold carnival masks.

'In my parents' shop', this is Ensor speaking, 'I had seen the wavy lines and the serpentine forms of beautfiful sea shells. The iridescent lights of Mother of Pearl, the rich tones of delicate chinoiserie. I was even more fascinated by our dark and frightening attic. Full of horrible spiders, curios, sea shells, plants and animals from distant seas. Beautiful chinaware. Rust and blood covered effects. Red and white coral. Monkeys. Turtles. Dried mermaids and stuffed chinamen.'

The attic above the shop was where they kept all the damaged goods. The unsaleable stuff from the shop. It was in that attic, surrounded by all this grotesque rubbish that Ensor was eventually to make his studio. It wasn't a happy home it must be said. The father was a bankrupt. Being bankrupt in Ostend off season, nothing to do, what do you do? You become an alcoholic. His father was an alcoholic, totally dependent economically on his wife's family.

Ensor's grandmother was a powerful woman. It wasn't a happy time for Ensor senior. In fact, one of the very first uses of the mask in Ensor's work was in 1883. It was a painting that you can actually see, there's a photograph of the interior of the Ensor Museum and there's a reproduction there of this painting, it's called 'Scandalised Masks'. It relates to his father and it shows a man sitting at a table with a carnival mask on and a big nose, with a bottle and a glass in front of him. In through the door is a female figure, also in a grotesque carnival mask, carrying a club. It is thought that that is his father, surprised, drinking, by his mother-in-law.

At the age of 17, Ensor got away from Ostend and he went to Brussels to the Belgian Royal Academy School of Art. In 1880, three years later, he left Brussels abruptly and returned to Ostend and he never left. There were occasional trips to Brussels to visit friends, but essentially he went back at the age of 20, to Ostend, to his damaged family and to his attic full of damaged goods, and lived there for the rest of his life, until 1949.

Emile Verhaeren, a friend, wrote a memoir of him and it's to Emile Verhaeren that we have to thank for a lot of the insight into Ensor's life. He wrote the following, 'Ensor livedwith beings who were puerile, fanciful, extraordinary, grotesque, gloomy, macabre. His art became savage. His terrifying puppets started to convey horror rather than joy. Even when their tawdry finery was pink and white, they seemed to be clothed in such distress, to embody such decay and to represent such ruin that they could never elicit laughter again, never… Death joined the dance… The skeleton became in turn a Pierrot, a tramp, a freak. The living mask and the death’s head became indistinguishable. These masks were not reminiscent of a carnival in… Flanders but of a hell on earth.’

And that is the atmosphere conveyed by a picture like this. It's a vision of Hell, these masks. In 1887, Ensor's father died. He was an alcoholic and he died of exposure in a doorway in Ostend. We can imagine him staggering back from the pub, falling asleep in a doorway, died of exposure.

Through there, there's an etching of his father, 'My Dead Father', laid out dead, 1887. He did the same thing for is mother, 1915, large oil painting, 'My Dead Mother'. She's just lying there, clutching a crucifix in death. She's actually viewed through a forest of medecine bottles on a tray. The year after his maternal aunt dies. Another painting, 'My dear Aunt'. Lying there touching a crucifix but no medecine bottles.

After his mother’s death in 1915 he inherited the shop and he kept it and he worked there and lived there and he displayed all the merchandise in the windows. The shop was all kept displayed, stuffed full of carnival masks but he did not open for business. It was almost as if he needed that bizarre clutter to maintain his vision of the world. Again Emile Verhaeren says, ‘When he was immersed in illusion, such a collection of faces and attitudes, ironies and anxieties, must certainly have represented life to him. And life seemed atrocious, deplorable, hostile. Life taught him the misanthropy that only jokes, laughter and sarcasm could cure.’

In preparing this talk I looked up on the web and keyed in 'Ensor masks' and one thing that kept cropping up, one reference, was from the International Review of Psychoanalysis. The psychoanalysts have a field day with Ensor. Marvellous. There's one abstract of an article that says, 'In his 23rd year, Ensor began to represent subjects wearing masks and he continued to do so until the end of his life. Beyond the primarily formal use to which Ensor originally put the mask, it soon became a means of representing his perception of the true selves of people. Thus, for Ensor, the visible face itself was a mask, a persona, concealing the subject's true self.'

One of the reasons why this painting is so haunting is that this old lady here is being mocked up by all these masks. They are mocking her because they are in a sense undermining the reality of her own face. It's intended to emphasise that her own face is a mask.

The mask doesn't only disguise, it transforms the reveller. In the late 1880s, Ensor began a process which one can only call artistic recycling. He did this a few times. He began to take early work, sometimes during his student days and give it the nightmare carnival treatment.

A couple of visual aids here. This here is an early self-portrait. A self-portrait, 'Ensor with Flowered Hat'. It's a conventional oil portrait. Rather good but nothing special. What he's done is he's put this rather silly floral hat on here and this great feather, undermining his original work by adding to it later on.

There's something more interesting here. This. It's now become 'Masks Watching a Negro Bargeman'. Essentially, this is a work that was begun in 1878 when he was a student at the art school. This would have been a professional model. He would have been holding this pole, just to keep his hands steady. It's the sort of work that most artists would have produced in their student days. It would have been cluttering up the studio waiting for the retrospective to come along.

Ensor recycles it and he puts in all these carnival masks here. He puts a parrot on the end of the pole. And he puts a turtle, a tortoise there. And this is a lantern there.

So, it's a recycling. In just the same way as this is a recycling. Legend has it that the 'Old Lady with Masks' started life as a conventional portrait. It was a portrait of Ensor's hairdresser's mother. His hairdresser's mother wanted a portrait painted so Ensor painted a portrait and exhibited it in 1888 as 'Mme B'. But there was a dispute and she refused to pay. Ensor took his revenge and he surrounded her by this crowd of grotesque masks, mocking her with a Death's head thrown in there for good measure in the upper right hand corner.

He also disfigured her with these two black spots there. A mole with hair coming out of the chin and some bucked teeth. So he turns her into a grotesque figure of fun. He exhibited it three years later in 1891 retitled 'Theatre of Masks' or 'Bouquet d'artifice'.

That's the legend.

There is an alternative legend as there very often is. My instinct when there's alternate stories is not to choose between the two but to believe both because if they're good enough why bother making a choice. You get two choices and you can make up your own mind.

The alternative version is that the sitter who refused to pay for the portrait, whose portrait was then modified in revenge, was the poet and novelist Neel Doff. Neel Doff was the pen name of a Dutch woman Cornelia Doff. She was of Dutch origin but she wrote in French. I was talking to a Dutch linguist of my acquaintance and he said that he had not heard of her and she's not really recognised by the Dutch literati. I would have thought they'd be glad of what they could get.

She wrote was called proletarian literature and she was known as the Dostoyevsky of the North. Rather puzzling really because what's Dostoyevsky if he's not in the North? She wrote two volumes of autobiography, they were called 'Keetje' (which means 'Katy' or 'Kate') and 'Keetje Trottin', which is the French word for an errand girl or more especially a dressmaking errand girl. But trottin in French is also a slang word for street whore.

Apparently Neel Doff in her early life was a prostitute which gave her marvellous credentials to write proletarian literature.

She was a prostitute. 'Bouquet d'artifice' becomes a mockery. It's suggesting that her proletarian credentials are something rather artificial. It's definitely a vengeance on Neel Doff. There's a problem with this story however as Neel Doff was a famous beauty. And since she would only have been 30 when this painting was first produced he wouldn't have been able to just make her look like this just by adding a couple of superficial blemishes. It strikes me that this painting is of an old woman which has then been coarsened even more.

That's one reason why it possibly isn't Neel Doff. Now, you might ask, if there's a conventional portrait under this, modern technology, why can't we have it x-rayed to see what was covered up? The answer is wonderful. Lead white. Lead white paint. Ensor uses an enormous amount of lead white paint. It's one of his trademarks. In a lot of his paintings. It's impastoed. It's laid on with a trowel.

Lead white of course cuts off x-rays. So x-raying this you'd get nothing.

It will remain a mystery. The other thing against this being Neel Doff is the original 1888 title, 'Portrait of Mme B.'. Neel Doff married a journalist Fernand Brouez and became Mme. B but that was not for another eight years.

I'll leave it to you to decide who it is. Whether it's the hairdresser's mother or the ex-prostitute turned proletarian novelist.

Three years later, though, this face appears again in a painting of 1892 called 'Strange masks'. It's in that book and it's not much point showing you but there's a series of grotesque figures and one of them bears a striking resemblance to this face here.

James Ensor had a stong misogynistic streak. It comes perhaps from his family background. He was surrounded by women as a child. There was his mother, his maternal aunt, his grandmother, his sister. Could have felt that these dominant women had driven his father to drink.

There was one woman in his life though, Augusta Boogaert, who he called 'La Sirene' - the siren. In the announcement of his death in 1949, she was described as 'surviving' him, his lifelong companion. She ended up with a large collection of his pictures. They never married and we don't really think that there was ever any sexual relationship. She was just a friend.

I'll leave you with Susan M Canning. Susan M Canning is an Ensor scholar and she wrote an article which I'd love to read. It's called 'Ordure of anarchy. Scatalogical of self and society in the art of James Ensor'. Actually, probably I don't want to read it. It sounds very dreary, but in it she quotes a rather tantalising verse, four lines from a poem that he wrote in 1925 called 'On Women' and it runs as follows:

'Mirey pool, crawling with bad beasts,
Liquid manure, sticky and oozing with vermin,
Sneaky and hostile morass
Horrible cess-pit, teeming with leeches'

He never married. Thankyou.