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Ostend exhibitions celebrate James Ensor in extensive 2024 season

Updated: Feb 10

In 2024, Ostend is commemorating 75 years since the death of James Ensor, one of Belgium's most remarkable artists and the city's most famous son.


And they're doing it through a very extensive exhibition and events programme.


Ensor is considered a pioneer of modernism and is known for his unconventional style. His enigmatic and often unsettling compositions delve into themes of human folly, existential angst, and societal critique.


Go to any gallery across Belgium (or any other northern European country for that matter) and you’ll find plenty of his trailblazing, fun and sometimes frightening art. 


So it’s no wonder that the man considered a master of Belgian painting should get a year-long celebration of his work to mark such a milestone in his legacy.


A visitor looks at a row on Ensor paintings displayed on a gallery wall
James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium 1830 — 1930 at Mu.Zee. Photo: maxwell museums

There are events planned across Belgium for this anniversary year, but the bulk of the 2024 Ensor exhibition season is taking place across two cities.


Antwerp’s Ensor exhibitions will get into full swing in September, but picking up the baton first is his birthplace and long-time hometown: Ostend. 



Ensor’s life in Ostend 

James Ensor was born in Ostend on the Belgium coast in 1860. Apart from his time as a teenager studying in Brussels at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, he lived in the seaside town for nearly all of his life. 


Ostend had a profound influence on his life and work. His English father and Belgian mother owned souvenir shops selling beach ephemera and carnival masks, which would go on to be frequent motifs in his paintings. He was also strongly influenced by the atmosphere of carnival and the annual masquerade in Ostend, which also became one of his central themes. .


For decades Ensor worked in his studio in his parents' house. He will have seen the place turn from sleepy village to beach resort hot-spot. He remained an enthusiastic participant in the cultural and social life of his hometown until his death in 1949, aged 89.


Ensor 2024 exhibitions in Ostend


Ensor’s hometown is definitely going all out to mark this special anniversary year. There are around 80 high-profile events planned that the city hopes will reveal the true face of 'the man behind the masks.' This includes 27 exhibitions.


So, if you’re planning on heading to the coastal town, these are some of the best James Ensor exhibitions you can visit to immerse yourself in the radical artist's world, 75 years after this death. 


Rose, Rose, Rose, à mes yeux! James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium 1830 — 1930 at Mu.Zee

— Open until 14 April 2024


This is the first exhibition ever devoted to Ensor's still lifes. He painted around 200 during his lifetime (out of a total output of 800 paintings) and around 50 are on show here.  


They can be seen alongside 100 works by other artists — maily lesser-known names — which have rarely or never been displayed in public. Collectively the exhibition traces the development of still life in Belgium at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries, as well as highlighting how Ensor broke away from the genre’s conventions by bringing in more light and colour to compositions. 


The message is clear in this show: highlighting how Ensor’s talents ensured he is remembered today while many of the other artists alongside are not. 


Find out more at muzee.be


A person sits on a bench with their back to the viewer to look at a range of paintings on display in a gallery
James Ensor and Still Life in Belgium 1830 — 1930 at Mu.Zee. Photo: maxwell museums

Self-Portraits at Ensor House

— Opens 21 March 2024


Self portraits were a big deal for James Ensor, and some of the best will be on show in this exhibition at the museum in the very house where Ensor lived and worked.


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The highlight will be his most famous self-portrait — 1883’s Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat — which is being loaned from the nearby Mu.ZEE. The image sees the artist stare directly at the view. It was reworked around 1888 with the addition of a flowered hat, where Ensor makes direct reference to Rubens’ famous self-portraits.


Between 1900 and 1932, Ensor did not paint self-portraits but the exhibition will show how his growing fame saw him paint a dozen from 1932 onwards. 1935’s Ensor and the Masks features much Ensorian flair, seeing him wearing a feathered hat, a painter’s palette in hand, standing under a rainbow. 


Self-portrait painting showing James Ensor looking at the viewer and wearing a flamboyant hat with flowers
James Ensor, _Zelfportret met bloemenhoed, 1883 © Collection Mu.ZEE. Photo: Hugo Maertens

— Opens 29 June 2024


This art exhibition is the chance to explore the unique connection between James Ensor and his birthplace. 


While Ostend evolved into a tourist and cultural destination known as the Queen of the Belgian seaside resorts, Ensor developed his artistic skills and vision there. But unlike other artists of the time — such as Léon Spilliaert — Ensor wasn’t so fussed about factual depictions of his hometown, preferring a creative freedom while capturing the townscape and coastal surroundings.  


On show will be Ensor’s 1890 depiction over the rooftops of houses on the Van Iseghemlaan, called View of Phnosia, luminous waves and vibrations, highlighting how he opted for atmosphere over accuracy. 


The exhibition will also touch on how Ensor’s life is intertwined with the city of Ostend such as how he played an active role in local artistic circles and his attempts to prevent the demolition of iconic landmarks for development.


Ensor's Mask at Stationsplein

— Until 22 September 2024


If you do travel to Ostend during this anniversary year, then you definitely won’t be able to miss the Ensor celebrations — as there’s a record-breaking sculpture to the artist installed right outside the city’s railway station, greeting travellers for much of the nest year. 


A large bust sculpture showing Ensore and his prominent moustache and made of straw
Ensor sculpture at Ostend station. Photo: Nick Decombel

The five-meter high statue of James Ensor, is made of straw, hay and reeds and is a bust of the artist holding one of his famous masks. You can walk between it, even touch it, and it is thought to be the largest ever sculpture made from natural materials to be made in Belgium. The piece has been created by Artist Maxime Van Besien and Passion4Wood.


Ensor 1940 at Atlantikwall & Natuurpark

— Opens 9 March 2024


During a bombing raid in May 1940, three paintings and several etchings by James Ensor were lost. Now, those three lost paintings are being faithfully reproduced in full size with the cooperation of the Art Academy by the Sea.


The works will be shown in an unusual but connected locations — a bunker at Atlantikwall Raversyde, a preserved outdoor museum of an extensive complex of WWI and WWII bunkers, gun emplacements and tunnels created by occupying German forces.


In this war-like environment, the recreated artworks will present a striking contrast between their beauty and the ravaged concrete space of conflict.

 

Ostend travel essentials 


  • Getting there | Daily Eurostar trains run from London St Pancras International to Bruxelles-Midi. Direct trains run hourly from Bruxelles-Midi to Ostend and take around 75 minutes.


  • Where to stay | The Art Deco Hotel Du Parc completed a full restoration in 2023 and is just 100m from the seafront. James Ensor was one of a number of past famous guests.



Boats in the harbour of Ostend with a clear blue sky
The yacht harbor of Oostende (Ostend) with train station at sunset, Belgium

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