2017-07-27 08:02:03
Footsteps: The Belgian Port Town That Inspired James Ensor’s Provocative Art

The monumental, imperial ambitions that once drove the transformation of Ostend — where the painter James Ensor was born, lived and worked his entire life — from a modest fishing port surrounded by dunes and marshes on the short, flat coast of Belgium into one of Europe’s grandest seaside resorts, first become visible on its outskirts.

Leaving behind the tidy, low-lying green polders of Flanders, the huge railway viaducts leading into the town along the industrial harbor are bordered by elegant granite balustrades ornamented by finials and huge carved balls of stone. The station itself, currently being renovated, is a bombastically beautiful 1913 building with an arched concourse flanked by a pair of monumental buildings with huge slate-covered mansard roofs.

Despite a certain operetta-set quality to it all, the Pharaonic seriousness of King Albert I’s rail works, and the station, still accomplish what they were intended to do, which is suggest that you’ve reached an important destination, a splendid place conjured up out of the sand by a royal house insistently seeking a public appearance of power and permanence; the Belgian throne had only been created in 1831. This is also what makes a first glimpse of the town itself a little puzzling; greeted by the sharp cries of sea gulls overhead and invigorated by the iodine-rich North Sea air, I had the impression of having accidentally blundered backstage as I walked along the stone-lined quays of its working fishing port, lined with snug brick houses.

Ostend is not Versailles. The atmosphere was appealingly bluff and briny, and the fish market next to the port was busy selling piles of the tiny gray North Sea shrimp (one of Ensor’s favorite foods when prepared in deep-fried croquettes), and huge flat-winged skates like the one he painted in his bluntly erotic “The Skate” (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium).

I bought a cup of sea snails cooked in court bouillon as a snack, and ate them while sitting on a bench in Zeeheldenplein, an open-air square overlooking the English Channel and the port, dominated by a statue of a fisherman. Watching the drama of the sunlight suddenly piercing the thick gray clouds over the English Channel, creating fleeting wells of silvery light that briefly polished the flinty looking sea, I mused on how essential this town had been to Ensor’s art.

Among other things, the painter had been deeply nourished by the sea, the constant emotional scouring of Ostend’s beaches by North Sea breakers, and the daily absolution offered by the tides. “I was guided by a secret instinct, a feeling for the atmosphere of the seacoast, which I had imbibed with the breeze, inhaled with the pearly mists, soaked up in the waves, heard in the wind,” Ensor wrote to a friend.

But where was the grande dame I’d read about, the opulent “watering hole” once known as “La Reine des Plages” (the queen of beaches), which attracted the crowned heads of Europe, not to mention Mozaffar ed-Din Shah Kadjar, ruler of Persia, who spent the month of August here in 1900? I should have guessed the fancy face of Ostend would be found along its seafront, but the streets I had walked through to get there gave me a first insight into why the town was the lifelong muse and subject of Ensor, its most famous son, who was born here in 1860.

Like a coin, Ostend has two faces. With a harmless layer of humdrum and honky-tonk as the mortar between them, it’s both a busy, bawdy working-class port and a genteel beach resort. The psychic and social tensions of Ostend’s dual identity clearly had a powerful impact on Ensor’s artistic sensibilities, too, since a finely developed sense of social satire is a recurring element in his work.

The joyous summertime vulgarity of any great seaside destination, where dozens of different definitions of pleasure are both on display and hidden, clearly stimulated the painter as well. The fresh daily pageant of strangers’ faces, both bizarre and beautiful, also piqued the muse.

So within just a few hours of arriving, I understood that the art of James Ensor was as inextricably linked to Ostend as the fiction of James Joyce is to Dublin or the poetry of Fernando Pessoa is to Lisbon. For these first sparks of insight, I have a museum guard I met in Antwerp almost 30 years ago to thank.

On a snowy morning in that Flemish port city, I’d gone to the Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp) to see “The Dance of the Bride” by Pieter Bruegel, and whatever other treasures the standoffishly formal museum with hissing radiators might offer me, when I found I had it all to myself aside from the tall, bald museum guard with a red beard and a gray flannel suit who shadowed me from room to room.

Then I came around a corner and was stopped in my tracks by “The Intrigue,” the big, raw colorful canvas of demented-looking figures that gave birth to my fascination with James Ensor. Who were these people, and why had the artist depicted them in such a grotesque way? It was a disturbing painting, which made it perversely irresistible, so I kept returning to that gallery. I’d just decided the faces weren’t really faces at all, but maybe masks of some kind, when the museum guard spoke to me: “Sir, if you really want to understand Ensor you’ll have to go to Ostend. It was the prism through which he saw the world.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Maybe someday I will.”

Now that day had finally come, but to know where to track Ensor in Ostend, I met Xavier Tricot, an artist, writer and one of the world’s pre-eminent Ensor scholars, for a coffee in the cafe at De Grote Post first. The popular cultural center was created from the town’s beautiful former main post office — designed by the talented Ghent architect Gaston Eysselinck, and built from 1947 to 1953 — and it opened in 2012. Today it’s become a gathering spot for an arty, free-spirited crowd where Ensor would have fit right in.

“People ask why Ensor stayed in Ostend instead of moving to Brussels or Paris, but I think he felt safe here because it was a small place which he knew, and where he was known,” said Mr. Tricot, an Ostend native and resident. “Ensor also loved being by the sea, and the light here, and the implicit eccentricity of the town, which offered him a ringside seat on a miniature version of the great social, political and artistic dramas and traumas that shaped Europe over the course of nearly a century, until his death in 1949,” Mr. Tricot said. “Even after King Leopold II transformed the town into a resort for the nouveau riche bourgeoisie, at heart it was still the same salty old port it had always been.

“Of course, the paradox of Ensor is that he was an elegant man who was very conscious of his social status. When he was young he witnessed the political and social upheavals in Belgium, and sympathized with the anarchists and the socialists, but he also identified a lot with his English father, who was well-born and had studied medicine in Germany, as opposed to his rather dour mother, who came from a simple Flemish family and ran a souvenir shop. Ensor’s father had attempted to make a life for himself as a doctor in the United States but it didn’t work out, so he came back to Europe and married Ensor’s mother on the rebound. So they were not social equals, and this caused a lot of tension in the couple,” Mr. Tricot said. Ensor also had a complicated relationship with Ostend. “He was a pariah until he had his first solo exhibit in Brussels in 1895. Then his genius was finally recognized by the local bourgeoisie, and the Belgian king made him a baron in 1929. He was very proud of that. To best put Ensor in the context of his times, you must visit the Oostends Historisch De Plate (De Plate Ostend Historical Museum),” Mr. Tricot explained.

This intimate, atmospheric museum, with its creaky parquet floors, shows how the town changed completely after 1838, when it became the terminus of a new rail line from Brussels. Across the English Channel, a rail line from London to Dover had also just opened, and in 1846 a Belgian steamship company began service with the purpose of attracting British tourists to the Belgian coast. More important, the little port had found favor with King Leopold I, the first regent of Belgium, who built the handsome villa and spent his holidays here with his French-born queen, Louise-Marie d’Orleans. Slightly creepy in a way that Ensor would probably have relished, her deathbed room is preserved intact.

The palmy travel posters and black-and-white photographs of the grand hotels and casino on the seafront in the town’s turn-of-the-century heyday as a resort also led me to understand that Ensor was something of a voyeur in relation to all this splendor. “I can give you some more information on my childhood and family,” he wrote to a friend. “A picturesque detail to note. My grandparents had a shop in Ostend in the Rue des Capuchins that sold seashells, lace, stuffed rare fish … Chinese porcelain, guns, a mess of strange objects that were always being knocked over by several cats, parrots with deafening voices and a monkey. I spent many long hours in the company of the cats, parrots and monkey. The shop smelled of mold and the monkey’s sour urine … while the cats walked on the precious lace. However, during the summer season, this strange place was frequented by the most distinguished foreigners, including William I, Prince of Prussia; Leopold I, King of the Belgians; the Duke of Brabant, the Duke of Flanders, etc.”

The house at the corner of Vlaanderenstraat and Van Iseghemlaan, where the shop was located, and Ensor grew up, was demolished in 1999. But the one at Vlaanderenstraat 27, where he moved in 1917 and spent the rest of his life, became the Ensorhuis (Ensor House), part of the Mu.Zee, in 1952. None of the painter’s original works are displayed, but the house is scrupulously preserved as the painter had lived in it and so offers an almost uncomfortably intimate experience of the psychic climate of his private world. From the souvenir shop on the ground floor, with its wooden cases of shells, toy boats and leering papier-mâché masks sold for Ostend’s springtime carnival, to the stuffy parlors with vases of feathers, elaborately patterned wall-to-wall Brussels carpeting, damask curtains and bric-a-brac everywhere, it’s a stifling terrarium-like place where it’s easy to imagine Ensor in his waistcoat and waxed mustache playing his harmonium in front of one of his best-known works, “The Entry of Christ in Brussels,” today hanging at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

After visiting this psychologically fraught place, I needed some air, so I walked along the Albert I Promenade, overlooking Ostend’s broad beaches, to see remnants of what the seafront had looked like when Ensor was alive. Today it is lined with modern structures built after World War II, but the long, colonnaded King Boudewijn Promenade, with its harlequin floor and benches to rest on, survives, as does the imposing if faded Art Deco-era Thermae Palace hotel at its end. The huge windows of the Brasserie Albert, the hotel’s restaurant, offer fine views of the North Sea and the well-made Belgian comfort food, including deep-fried shrimp croquettes and steak tartare, that Ensor enjoyed.

After two days spent getting to know him in Ostend, I was eager to see some of Ensor’s work again, so I headed for the Mu.Zee, the town’s contemporary art museum. It was empty on a weekday, so I had the Ensor gallery to myself. This meant I could contemplate one of the artist’s oddest paintings, “Ma Mère Morte (My Mother Dead),” depicting, behind a foreground of medicine bottles on a tray, his mother on her deathbed, with the same cool delectation the artist might have felt painting it.

Then I moved along to a canvas that I consider to be the museum’s Ensor masterpiece, “Self-Portrait With a Flowered Hat.” In this 1883 painting, the artist impassively returns the viewer’s gaze, as if to say, “Yes, I am wearing a flowered hat with a big feather, and what of it?” And I concluded that it was this very pose, of frank but well-mannered iconoclasm, that made James Ensor Ostend’s perfect son.

James Ensorhuis (James Ensor House) (Vlaanderenstraat 27, muzee.be) The house in which James Ensor lived from 1917 until his death in 1949 is now a museum.

Ostend Tourist Office (Monacoplein 2; open daily; visitoostende.be). “The Scent of Ostend” is a self-guided walking tour of the town that points out some of the Ensor’s favorite places, including the Falstaff cafe on the Wapenplein. The tour, in English, can be downloaded to your iPod from the website, but it’s worth stopping by the tourist office to pick up the accompanying map.

Mu.Zee (Romestraat 1; muzee.be) Ostend’s modern art museum has several superb Ensor paintings.

Hotel Andromeda (Albert Promenade 60; andromedahotel.be). Located right on the beachfront and across the street from the casino, this large comfortable modern hotel has an indoor pool.

Hotel Prado (Leopold II Laan 22; hotelprado.be). This small, traditional family-run hotel in the heart of town is ideal for a short stay.

Cultuurcentrum De Grote Post (Hendrik Serruyslaan 18a; degrotepost.be) Stop by to admire its stunning modernist architecture and hobnob with Ostend’s arty crowd in the pleasant cafe-restaurant.