James Ensor: Les bains à Ostende (1890); Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

That Vincent van Gogh was a prime innovator of modern art, a bridge between impressionism and expressionism, is undisputed. That the same can be said of the Flemish artist James Ensor is less established. Ensor himself was quite aware of his position, and stressed his role as major influence on the myriad of styles that erupted in the early twentieth century. His claims were acknowledged by the most important German expressionists, such as Kirchner, Grosz and Nolde.
Like many crucial innovators in art, Ensor diametrically opposed and questioned society and its values. Like Van Gogh, he felt frustrated by the general consensus on what constituted good art. And like him, he produced his best works in the years around 1890. But interestingly, Ensor, by any means the more radical of the two, creator of art that was certainly further removed from the general ideas of beauty than Van Gogh's, did not suffer the bitter rejection the Dutchman endured. In fact, as time passed, Ensor's status as an artist’s artist grew considerably, he became a favourite of the Belgian king, and was made a count in 1929. Still, while over time Van Gogh's art became mainstream, Ensor's never did. Even today, people do not quite know what to make of the radical work he produced in the late 19th century.
Les Bains à Ostende is a key work in Ensor's oeuvre. It shows a bathing scene in Ostend, the fashionable bathing resort in which he lived nearly his entire life. Looking carefully at the way the frolicking in the surf is depicted, it becomes clear that Ensor is not at all charmed by these bathers. In deceptively simple, naïf and cheerful shapes and colours, Ensor paints a picture of infinite banality. Through telescope-like binoculars, seedy voyeurs shamelessly spy on a sea of creatures that exhibit vulgar behaviour: fornicating dogs, a man grabbing a woman's chest, a fat lady flaunting her naked behind, two clownish fools kissing, a floating obese figure – it goes on and on... a grotesque infinity that, in all its apparent cheerfulness, is strangely reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch's depiction of hell.
(text: Edgar Foley)