Art and Artists

Ensor on a Rainy Sunday

The Dejected Lady
The Dejected Lady, James Ensor

Ensor on a Rainy Sunday

Outside it rains – with eyes attuned to greys I see the Ensor paintings at MOMA more clearly. And I think that Ostend must be a city of fogs for Ensor to know so well what colors would sing on a day such as today. What is interesting is what stops the light and what the light passes through. The light wraps around and dissolves its objects. Glasses, candlesticks, are as if removed, diminished by that which illuminates or eclipsed by those things deemed solid.

‘A Woman in Distress’, her disheveled form seems to displace the bedding she lays upon, as a weight would in a woolen bath the bedclothes spilling over the edge of the ornate wooden bed. In many of the early pictures, tablecloths, bedding, furniture – all seem to dissolve into the dark air and into the walls and the carpets so that all becomes waves of shifting patterns.

The light is at once solid and diffuse, and refers back to the hard geometry of the window panes whose glare at first blinds us – as it would if we entered such a space from another room more illuminated than this shady parlor. Slowly our eyes adjust and the shapes and forms diversify in the gloom. We see at first only what the light glances over and then at last we glean those persons and objects which Ensor obscures in shadow.

The light erases. The shadow devours. And yet by choosing our focus the eyes adjust and forms spill out from the gloom that the lamp licks over. The impartial daylight pricks the edges nearest the glass but is quickly extinguished in the plush and cluttered interiors – like noise is hushed in a padded room. The room absorbs what little light the day leaves into a sumptuous dark and velvet palette – green, grey and vermillion glow – grey becoming almost blue in the halflight, vermillion which is unlikely a true red and more likely brown but has such fire in the comparative dark, green – emerald which has its own heat. “On such a day one would need to be of solid emerald or ruby to burn with any flame and not merely dissolve in grey atoms in the universal grey,” as Virginia Woolf said on another such rainy day.

Lady in distress
Lady in distress, James Ensor

The glowing vermillion lava cracks fissures through the mundane scene. All is translucency, scrape and the butter of light – patted and opacifying. The catalog tells me this style of painting – ‘tashist’ comes from the French word ‘tacher’ meaning to mark or stain. Tashist is the plates left after a meal scraped clean but still stained by a glaze of grease or sauce – the feast past but evidence of life and joy remaining.

There is a marked difference in decorum between the play and light of the attic studio with its strange assembled tableaux, and the somber quiet of the world below. One begins to feel that Ensor is himself the illumination to the staid countenance and serious gloom of the understories. His later paintings are as illuminated as their precursors are shrouded in darkness, but the light obliterates as much as it reveals.

A misreading, a Monet painting seen in Luzern titled “Neige a Amsterdam” I read as “Niegue a Amsterdam” confounding two languages and two meanings. Niegue, from negar – to negate. The snow covers all, negates all.


Think that snow is falling. Think that snow is falling
everywhere all the time. When you talk with a person, think
that snow is falling between you and on the person.
Stop conversing when you think the person is covered by snow.

Yoko Ono, 1963

Returning home, I sit and look out the window as the sky begins to clear. Through the dusty glass the leaves of the trees that line the street seem to weave into a single net of green. But each time the sun emerges it reaffirms the distance – illuminating the space between. Pulling near closer and pressing far back. What is close is still in shadow, remains but a silhouette to the glow of the receding distance. Ensor’s light is a relative light – things that slip beyond the foreground – faces, masks, figures – dissolve into the pending light as into a fog.

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