Three newly acquired symbolist graphics by Ensor, Aman-Jean and Munch


One of the aspects of the last two decades of the 19th century is the emergence in art of new shoots of movements and styles, which were to come into full flowering in the early part of our own era. Nor were these embryonic styles confined to any one country: the three works discussed here stem respectively from Belgium, France and Norway, which, joining other graphic work by the artists and by their contemporaries already in the Print Department, will allow the Australian viewer to participate more fully in the creative leaps of the imagination that quite suddenly and with only very tenuous inter-connections occurred simultaneously in so many different regions of Europe. 

Because James Ensor never worked outside his native Belgium at one of the great European centres of art, it is easily overlooked that he was an early pioneer of the ‘modern art’ of our century. The recently acquired etching. La Cathédrale (fig. 1) tells of an imagination as personal, as sensitive and as troubled as that of Paul Klee. 

James Ensor (1860–1949) was born of an English father and a Flemish mother in Ostend, where he settled and after attending the Academy at Brussels, began in 1880 to paint sombre, realist pictures while also making freely drawn copies from engravings by such artists as Rembrandt, Callot, Turner and Rowlandson. He increased the brilliance of his colour but from about 1883 gradually abandoned the intimist scenes of his youth for ironic, ‘scandalous’, symbolic imagery, painted in high keyed, discordant colours, which caused him to be abused and rejected for many bitter years.1Paul Haesaerts, James Ensor, (New York), 1958; Libby Tannenbaum, James Ensor, Museum of Modern Art, (New York), 1951.

Though he had adopted etching only a few months before, The Cathedral, his seventh venture in this technique, is his magnum opus in that medium.2Auguste Taevernier, James Ensor, Illustrated Catalogue of his Engravings, (Ghent, Brussels), 1973, No. 7, 1st plate (zinc), second state of two; sanguine on Japan paper, 252 x 192 mm. See also Taevernier Nos 105 (Ensor engraved the plate anew in 1896, the first one having been lost) and 261. For translucency of linework he may perhaps have been indebted to Whistler, the design however is no mere illusion of a picturesque reality, but strikes a strange and ghostly note. 

An age-old, Gothic fabric rises into light and into the beyond above the suffocating sea of masks of a carnival crowd, as is clear from the costumes and the bunting tacked on to the buildings; we see no figures, no gestures nor movement; heads pressed close together, ‘insolent, cruel, malicious’ faces followed by a phalanx of soldiers fill the foreground right down to the lower edge.3Haesaerts op. cit. quotes Ensor ‘suffering, scandalised, insolent, cruel and malicious masks’, pp. 357–8. 

Ensor subtly elaborated the contrast between the cathedral and the masses; with fragile lines and soft shadows he created an exquisitely organised edifice; the crowd, on the other hand, is rendered in dry lines, within which discordant shapes of dark and light convey confusion and disturbance. 

The composition of La Cathédrale is so markedly eccentric and the handling so pointedly disparate that we sense a symbolic intention: this image of a mysterious monument rising triumphantly above coarse, insensitive humanity mirrors Ensor’s aspirations and suffering. That cathedrals to him could stand for high achievement may be illustrated by a passage from his writings: speaking contemptuously of the ephemeral efforts of certain fellow painters he continued: ‘the hatred of cathedrals and towers is always in evidence’.4Les Écrits de James Ensor, (Brussels), 1921, p. 15 ‘Réflexions sur quelques peintres et lanceurs d’éphémères, la haine des cathédrales et des tours se dessine toujours’.

 

If in this etching the precise meaning is concealed by a metaphor, the large, brightly coloured painting The entry of Christ into Brussels (1888) where, dwarfed by a huge carnival throng, Ensor rides in the image of Christ, makes unconcealed avowal of mystic exaltation and Satanic humour (fig. 2). A similar mood prevails in Ecce Homo or Christ and his critics (1891) in which a self portrait as the scourged Christ with a crown of thorns is set between the likenesses of two of Ensor’s most bitter opponents.5Haesaerts op. cit. p. 181, illus. 201; Christ’s entry into Brussels (fig. 2) was preceded by the drawing Vive et rayonnante entré du Christ à Jerusalem of 1885 (Musée des Beaux Arts, Ghent), Haesaerts op. cit. illus. p. 150. In the light of these paintings the cathedral may be understood as a sanctuary, offering both rapture and consolation, its tender lyricism defeating the fearful advance of the hollow-eyed masks in the foreground. 

Such interpretation of La Cathédrale gains in probability if it is remembered that Gothic church architecture had been invested with deep subjective symbolism by the German Romantics6See for example W. Sumowski, Caspar David Friedrich Studien, ‘Vision der Kirche’, Wiesbaden, 1970, pp. 107–13. and that the imaginary sanctuary of an aesthetic religion is a recurrent motif in symbolist literature.7Antoine Orliac, La Cathédrale Symboliste, (Paris), 1933, pp. 235, 237. Symbolist literature is frequently discussed in I’Art Moderne of 1886 whose editor, Oscar Maus, was, like Ensor, a member of Les XX, the progressive Brussels group of artists. In Die Kathedrale (Neue Gedichte, Erster Teil) Rilke contrasts the crowd’s ephemeral existence with the cathedral as a symbol of Love, Death and Eternity. In the seventh Duino Elegy Rilke insists that the visible Cathedral be transformed into an invisible, imperishable one, within us. And later than Ensor, in the early 20th century, the Wagnerian notion of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ is often given cathedral form, as in the programme of the State Bauhaus in Weimar in April 1919 with Lionel Feininger’s woodcut ‘cathedral’ on the title page, and Gropius’s words in the manifesto: ‘Together let us … create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise towards heaven … like the crystal symbol of a new faith’.8H. M. Wingler, The Bauhaus, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, (Cambridge, Mass, and London), 1969, pl. 31.

The alarming crowd, too, has its parallels in the symbolism of the 1890s: Schiefler, cataloguer of Edvard Munch’s graphic oeuvre, describes the lithograph no. 61 of 1894 called Anxiety in this way: ‘One looks towards the heads of people who in a frightening way, with large and frontal faces, advance towards the spectator’. The motif occurs repeatedly in Munch’s oeuvre, mostly in the context of fear.9Munch may have seen Gauguin’s Brittany pictures in 1890; Gauguin returned to Paris before leaving for Tahiti: these pictures contain frontally cut off figures to which Munch’s figures bear resemblance, see Edith Hoffmann, Burlington Magazine, 1951, vol. 93, p. 393. 

As for composition, La Cathédrale is as original in design as in meaning. Ensor here disregards one of the commonest traditions of post-medieval art, that is, to delimit large masses of people by showing the foreground figures full-length, the feet defining their position in space. Processions of people customarily were shown from the side: we walk along with the triumphal procession of Caesar by Mantegna at Hampton Court.10Even where, as in Delacroix’s Liberty at the barricades, 1830 (Le Louvre, Paris), the movement of the crowd is directed towards the spectator, the foreground figures are full length and their position in space is defined by their stance. The same holds good for Goya’s Burial of a sardine, c.1800 (Academia de San Fernando, Madrid); even in Edward Burne-Jones’s late Fall of Lucifer, 1894 (Mr & Mrs Robert Walker), where the lower margin cuts across the necks of figures, whole-length figures float in front above to redress the balance. Ensor’s bodiless heads, advancing frontally on the spectator, defy precedent and like photographs taken from a certain height, convey the feeling of an unlimited sea of humanity, above which the cathedral, so curiously lacking in stable verticals and firm outlines, seems to float.11Streets filled with dense crowds of humanity, advancing on the spectator and cut off at shoulder height by the lower margin, are a feature of Gustav Doré’s illustrations to William Blanchard’s London, 1872, which Ensor could possibly have known. Roger van Gindertael, in Ensor, Studio Vista, (London), 1975, p. 53, quoting André de Ridder, shows that Ensor painted many street scenes looking down from his studio on the fourth floor of the Ensor house in Ostende, where he lived between 1880 and 1917. 

It is tempting to compare Ensor’s etching with another master print of the 19th century that has a cathedral as its theme, namely Charles Méryon’s L’abside Notre Dame (1854)12L. Delteil, H. J. L. Wright, Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings of Charles Méryon, (London, New York), 1924, No. 38. (fig. 3). Not that one is aware of any connection between the two. Seen together, however, the comparison emphasises yet another feature in Ensor’s work that is prophetic of ‘modern art’ of our time. Méryon consciously emulated the manner of the great etchers of the past, particularly of the Dutch 17th century. His print is sharply articulated, his architecture is solid and weighty, his precise linework stands in the service of illusion creating a wide range of tone from clearest light to deep velvety dark. By contrast Ensor preserves an air of improvisation, of apparently accidental effects, which force us to remain conscious of his line, subtle in the cathedral and in the portrayal of the crowd reduced to a child-like, semi-primitive manner. All this and the fragility of the pale, sanguine pull from the first plate bring to mind Paul Klee, who became acquainted with Ensor’s art in 1908 and fully understood his ‘linear intentions’. ‘A work goes beyond naturalism the instant the line enters as an independent pictorial element, as in … Ensor’s graphics’ Klee wrote, ‘in Ensor’s graphic compositions the juxtaposition of the lines is noteworthy’.13Paul Klee, Tagebücher, 1898–1918, ed. Felix Klee, (Cologne) 1956, (London) 1965, No. 842, written in Munich in 1908. A note written in 1907, ibid. No. 804, is of interest; ‘Sonderegger [a Swiss graphic artist] feeds me his favorite fare, Daumier and Ensor, van Gogh’s letters, Baudelaire’s writings, Edgar Poe.’ 

Here, then, we see Ensor freeing himself from the realist–impressionist conventions in order to give visible form to abstract ideas. European art had, of course, a long tradition of symbolic imagery which expressed generally understood notions such as Faith, Liberty, Wisdom, menace and consolation, but Ensor created a new iconography by using carnival masks juxtaposed to a Gothic church for giving vent in a covered way to specifically personal pressures.14An aspect of Ensor’s psychological conflicts has been the subject of H. T. Piron, Ensor, een psychoanalitische Studie, (Antwerp), 1968; see also Dr. Med. Hans Birkhauser, P.D. in Jaarboek Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten, (Antwerp), 1962–3, pp. 159–65, for a diagnosis of schizophrenia; a useful account of Ensor’s troubles is given by Libby Tannenbaum, see note 1. The hermetic language of his symbolism provoked and antagonised his public. To the patient onlooker however, the etching transmits its meaning, since the symbolism remains close to generally shared ideas, such as Mother Church and ‘the pomp and vanity of this wicked world’ – and does so all the more effectively as, beguiling like Wagner’s music, Ensor’s seductive style insinuates itself into the spectators’ unconscious. The exquisite, tender offprint from the first plate of the Cathedral reflects, in Ensor’s own words, ‘my contempts, my joys, my pains, my loves’.15James Ensor, Lettres a André de Ridder, (Antwerp), 1960, p. 57 ‘… mes mépris, mes joies, mes peines, mes amours.’ 

Edmond François Aman-Jean (1860–1936) was not, like Ensor, a fighting and tormented pioneer, but a rather gentle member of the esoteric Rosicrucian Society and a friend of the symbolist poets and of Seurat. 

An air of mystery pervades Sous les fleurs (1897)16Sous les fleurs 1897, four-colour lithograph signed with initials in the stone and with the blind stamp of the publisher I’Estampe Moderne, on wove paper, 35 x 27 cm. An impression lent by the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, was shown in French Symbolist Painters, Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery 1972/3, Cat. pp. 22, 23 and biography, described as a three-colour lithograph. See Ph. Jullian Dreamers of Decadence, London 1971, pp. 116, 126 repr. fig. 64. (fig. 4) where the indistinctness of the face lays emphasis on its Pre-Raphaelite contour, which, obliquely placed, is echoed in the flower shapes, while swirling lines of hair form into an art nouveau pattern. Just as the writers of the ’nineties had used sensuous and unusual colour words to introduce subtle overtones into their prose, thus Aman-Jean contrasted the reddish-purplish-brown of the figure with the pale yellows and greens of the flowers, and the autumnal combination has an insistent, yet faded look symbolic of the transience of youth and beauty, while the play with hair and the dreamy features recall poems by Verlaine such as from the Chanson pour Elles

Es-tu brune ou blonde? 

Sont-il noirs ou bleu 

Tes yeux? 

Je ne sais rien, mais j’aime leur clarté profonde, 

Mais j’adore le désordre de tes cheveux.17Are you brunette or fair? / Are they black or blue / Your eyes? / I do not know but I love their deep brilliance, / But I adore the disorder of your hair.

Turning to Edvard Munch’s woodcut, with the delicate sensuousness of Aman-Jean still in mind, one may well feel startled at an effect so devoid of all illusion of tangible reality. In his graphic work, Munch systematically broke with conventional methods. Stimulated by Gauguin’s and Japanese woodcuts, he developed his own working process, passionately sensitive to the nature of his material, the blocks of pine wood, from whose large flat surfaces he printed colour, thinly applied so that the strong grain of the wood imposes its natural pattern within which white and brown incisions create the design. The block for our illustration (fig. 5) has been severed at the contour of the tree tops and the figures have been cut out, prior to inking, the block being re-assembled for printing. Thus the artist achieved the haunting simplicity of an imagery to which he felt compelled to return time and again throughout his life. 

In his famous series of paintings called The Frieze of Life the theme of Man and Woman in the Forest had held a prominent place. ‘It is somehow the picture that holds the whole cycle together’ wrote his contemporary biographer, Stenerson. ‘Two naked people with the city at a distance, it is a picture of life and death. The forest, taking its life from the dead, the town seen beyond the tree tops, all this is a representation of the strong and opposing forces of life.’18Werner Timm, The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch, (London), 1969, p. 53.

Simpler than The Frieze of Life scene. Into the forest (1915) is a variation on a design which first appears in Munch’s print in 1897, where a man, his arm around a female nude, both with their back to the spectator, seem to drift rather than walk towards a dark forest. Subduing the erotic impact by clothing the girl, the 1915 version emits a lyrical, tender and happy note rare in Munch’s oeuvre.19To the forest, 1915; Schiefler 444, colour woodcut, 51 x 64.8 cm inscribed in pencil l.r. Edv. Munch. The following versions of this theme may be noted; pencil and watercolour drawing in Munch Museet (T 354) dated by Hougen between 1893 and 1896 (No. 66a, P120) shows both the man and the woman nude (Rheinhold Heller, in Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, XXIX, No. 3, 1972, p. 155 No. 4); colour lithograph 1897, Schiefler 100, Timm 58 (example illustrated is hand coloured) colour lithograph 1897, Schiefler 100, Timm 58; The kiss in the fields, c.1893, woodcut, Schiefler 232 and Ms 707; Timm, pl. 184; lithograph in the Cycle Alfa and Omega, Schiefler 312, 1909, Timm illus. 44.

Recent research has drawn attention to the similarity of such themes by Munch with those of the northern Romantic painters of the early 19th century, in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich the communion between man and nature, expressed in figures or pairs of figures, with their backs to the spectator, silently and intensely immersed in the view before them, prefigured the symbolic language of Munch, who, bending the most up-to-date French idiom to render articulate his urgent emotions, continued or re-enlivened a tradition alternative to that of the School of Paris.20Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, Thames & Hudson, (London), 1975, pp. 101–110.

Much the greatest of the three artists discussed here, Munch’s daring rejection of conventional attitudes and styles enabled him to rise beyond naturalism and to lead the spectator far on the imaginary way that 20th century ‘modern art’ would increasingly require him to take. 

Ursula Hoff, Felton Bequest’s adviser to the National Gallery of Victoria (in 1976). 

Previously a member of the Council of Trustees who earlier had held the positions of Curator of European Art before 1800 and Curator of Prints and Drawings. 

Notes

1          Paul Haesaerts, James Ensor, (New York), 1958; Libby Tannenbaum, James Ensor, Museum of Modern Art, (New York), 1951. 

2          Auguste Taevernier, James Ensor, Illustrated Catalogue of his Engravings, (Ghent, Brussels), 1973, No. 7, 1st plate (zinc), second state of two; sanguine on Japan paper, 252 x 192 mm. See also Taevernier Nos 105 (Ensor engraved the plate anew in 1896, the first one having been lost) and 261. 

3          Haesaerts op. cit. quotes Ensor ‘suffering, scandalised, insolent, cruel and malicious masks’, pp. 357–8. 

4          Les Écrits de James Ensor, (Brussels), 1921, p. 15 ‘Réflexions sur quelques peintres et lanceurs d’éphémères, la haine des cathédrales et des tours se dessine toujours’. 

5          Haesaerts op. cit. p. 181, illus. 201; Christ’s entry into Brussels (fig. 2) was preceded by the drawing Vive et rayonnante entré du Christ à Jerusalem of 1885 (Musée des Beaux Arts, Ghent), Haesaerts op. cit. illus. p. 150. 

6          See for example W. Sumowski, Caspar David Friedrich Studien, ‘Vision der Kirche’, Wiesbaden, 1970, pp. 107–13. 

7         Antoine Orliac, La Cathédrale Symboliste, (Paris), 1933, pp. 235, 237. Symbolist literature is frequently discussed in I’Art Moderne of 1886 whose editor, Oscar Maus, was, like Ensor, a member of Les XX, the progressive Brussels group of artists. In Die Kathedrale (Neue Gedichte, Erster Teil) Rilke contrasts the crowd’s ephemeral existence with the cathedral as a symbol of Love, Death and Eternity. In the seventh Duino Elegy Rilke insists that the visible Cathedral be transformed into an invisible, imperishable one, within us.

8          H. M. Wingler, The Bauhaus, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, (Cambridge, Mass, and London), 1969, pl. 31. 

9         Munch may have seen Gauguin’s Brittany pictures in 1890; Gauguin returned to Paris before leaving for Tahiti: these pictures contain frontally cut off figures to which Munch’s figures bear resemblance, see Edith Hoffmann, Burlington Magazine, 1951, vol. 93, p. 393. 

10        Even where, as in Delacroix’s Liberty at the barricades, 1830 (Le Louvre, Paris), the movement of the crowd is directed towards the spectator, the foreground figures are full length and their position in space is defined by their stance. The same holds good for Goya’s Burial of a sardine, c.1800 (Academia de San Fernando, Madrid); even in Edward Burne-Jones’s late Fall of Lucifer, 1894 (Mr & Mrs Robert Walker), where the lower margin cuts across the necks of figures, whole-length figures float in front above to redress the balance. 

11          Streets filled with dense crowds of humanity, advancing on the spectator and cut off at shoulder height by the lower margin, are a feature of Gustav Doré’s illustrations to William Blanchard’s London, 1872, which Ensor could possibly have known. Roger van Gindertael, in Ensor, Studio Vista, (London), 1975, p. 53, quoting André de Ridder, shows that Ensor painted many street scenes looking down from his studio on the fourth floor of the Ensor house in Ostende, where he lived between 1880 and 1917. 

12          L. Delteil, H. J. L. Wright, Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings of Charles Méryon, (London, New York), 1924, No. 38. 

13         Paul Klee, Tagebücher, 1898–1918, ed. Felix Klee, (Cologne) 1956, (London) 1965, No. 842, written in Munich in 1908. A note written in 1907, ibid. No. 804, is of interest; ‘Sonderegger [a Swiss graphic artist] feeds me his favorite fare, Daumier and Ensor, van Gogh’s letters, Baudelaire’s writings, Edgar Poe.’ 

14         An aspect of Ensor’s psychological conflicts has been the subject of H. T. Piron, Ensor, een psychoanalitische Studie, (Antwerp), 1968; see also Dr. Med. Hans Birkhauser, P.D. in Jaarboek Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten, (Antwerp), 1962–3, pp. 159–65, for a diagnosis of schizophrenia; a useful account of Ensor’s troubles is given by Libby Tannenbaum, see note 1. 

15         James Ensor, Lettres a André de Ridder, (Antwerp), 1960, p. 57 ‘… mes mépris, mes joies, mes peines, mes amours.’ 

16         Sous les fleurs 1897, four-colour lithograph signed with initials in the stone and with the blind stamp of the publisher I’Estampe Moderne, on wove paper, 35 x 27 cm. An impression lent by the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, was shown in French Symbolist Painters, Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery 1972/3, Cat. pp. 22, 23 and biography, described as a three-colour lithograph. See Ph. Jullian Dreamers of Decadence, London 1971, pp. 116, 126 repr. fig. 64. 

17         Are you brunette or fair? / Are they black or blue / Your eyes? / I do not know but I love their deep brilliance, / But I adore the disorder of your hair. 

18         Werner Timm, The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch, (London), 1969, p. 53. 

19         To the forest, 1915; Schiefler 444, colour woodcut, 51 x 64.8 cm inscribed in pencil l.r. Edv. Munch. The following versions of this theme may be noted; pencil and watercolour drawing in Munch Museet (T 354) dated by Hougen between 1893 and 1896 (No. 66a, P120) shows both the man and the woman nude (Rheinhold Heller, in Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, XXIX, No. 3, 1972, p. 155 No. 4); colour lithograph 1897, Schiefler 100, Timm 58 (example illustrated is hand coloured) colour lithograph 1897, Schiefler 100, Timm 58; The kiss in the fields, c.1893, woodcut, Schiefler 232 and Ms 707; Timm, pl. 184; lithograph in the Cycle Alfa and Omega, Schiefler 312, 1909, Timm illus. 44. 

20         Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, Thames & Hudson, (London), 1975, pp. 101–110. 

 

fig. 4, Under the flowers, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Beneath the flowers.

fig. 5, Into the forest, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Towards the forest II.