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The many travels of the mask Wouse

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The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) preserves no fewer than thirty-eight paintings by James Ensor, pieces for which the museum receives exceptionally many loan request for exhibitions in Belgium and abroad. Together, the paintings have travelled on over 1500 occasions to 260 or so exhibitions. In almost half of these shows, the work of Ensor took centre stage. In the present article, Nanny Schrijvers describes the exhibition history of The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse, one of the showpieces in the KMSKA collection.

Backside of The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse

The canvas stretcher of Ensor's The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse is covered with almost two dozen labels, most of which refer to previous exhibitions: Würt. Kunstverein Stuttgart…; Düsseldorf; *From Ensor to Delvaux* at the Provincial Museum of Modern Art in Ostend; “ENSOR” Bale; New Port Harbour Art Museum California, Flemish Expressions: Representational Painting in the 20th Century, 12/ 12/ 86 – 22/ 02/ 87; Kunsthaus Zürich “J.E…; Kunsthalle Basel…; Zürich ’83, 20.5 – 31.07;…

James Ensor, The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse, 1889, oil on canvas, 109 x 131.5 cm, signed and dated bottom left: Ensor 1889, KMSKA inv. no. 2042 © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW / Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, photograph by Hugo Maertens

James Ensor, The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse, 1889, oil on canvas, 109 x 131.5 cm, signed and dated bottom left: Ensor 1889, KMSKA inv. no. 2042 © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW / Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, photograph by Hugo Maertens.

Created in 1889, The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse was first shown to the public in Brussels in 1890 at the seventh annual exhibition of Les Vingt, a group of which Ensor was a founding member. 1 It would be twenty years before the painting made its next public appearance, this time in Antwerp at an exhibition organised by the Cercle Royal Artistique, Litéraire et Scientifique. Also in 1910, on 22 September to be precise, the Rotterdam Art Circle opened an Exhibition of the Work of JAMES ENSOR. It was Ensor's first major foreign exhibition and featured 50 paintings, 3 watercolours, 6 drawings and 8 etchings. At the time, many of the pieces were still for sale from the artist, including The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse. This and twelve of the other paintings in the Rotterdam show would eventually be acquired by KMSKA. In the period up to the Second World War, The Mask Wouse continued its travels to participate in further exhibitions in Paris, Leipzig and Mannheim. In 1945/ 1946, it was shown in Amsterdam and Bern among other places.

Label on the canvas stretcher, top left: “1986/ 1987, Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Flemish Expressions: Representational painting in the twentieth century, no. 28.

Label on the canvas stretcher, top left: “1986/ 1987, Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Flemish Expressions: Representational painting in the twentieth century, no. 28.”

The exhibition entitled Flemish Expressions made stops at Newport Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Here, Ensor’s painting was displayed alongside the work of Symbolists such as Jakob Smits, Léon Spilliaert and Gustave Van De Woestyne as well as Expressionists like Constant Permeke and Frits Van den Berghe. The intention was to offer an overview of Flemish painting from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similar selections had previously been on show in Paris (1946) and London (1971). The work of Ensor, and particularly The Mask Wouse, never failed to draw attention.

A gallery at KMSKA during the Ensor retrospective of 1951.

A gallery at KMSKA during the Ensor retrospective of 1951.

The travels were not always distant though. Ensor was shown at virtually every salon held by L'Art Contemporain. The photograph above provides a view of a museum gallery during the first major retrospective of Ensor's work at KMSKA in 1951. It would be followed by a second retrospective in 1983, which subsequently travelled on to Zurich and four cities in Japan.

Pride of place for Ensor

Not only has KMSKA always taken great care that its Ensor paintings would travel safely, the museum is also committed to ensuring that the artist's work is properly displayed, in a manner befitting his status. The records of the Museum Commission indicate that there have been quite a few rejected loan requests. Such rejections prevented the Mask Wouse from travelling to Mexico in 1974 and to Japan in 1978, as well as to Montreal in 1993 for an exhibition on Symbolism. It did however join sixteen other pieces from the KMSKA collection on a show that travelled through Japan from September 1972 to January 1973. Eleven years later, in 1984, the painting once again took part in a Japanese exhibition. Major ensembles from the Ensor collection made further visits to Japan in 2000/ 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2012/ 2013.

In 1951, the Mask Wouse travelled to the United States for a monographic exhibition that made stops at Boston, Cleveland, Saint Louis and New York. Almost sixty years later, in 2009, MoMA in New York held a retrospective of Ensor's work featuring around 120 works, including the Mask Wouse and almost a dozen other paintings from the KMSKA collection. The exhibition subsequently transferred to Musée d'Orsay in Paris. This was by no means the first time that The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse had travelled to the French capital. It had previously been shown there in 1926 and in 1932 at the Musée National du Jeu de Paume, and at an Ensor exhibition in 1939. In 1946, it had taken part in a show at Musée de l'Orangerie featuring seven Belgian painters, followed in 1954 by a monographic exhibition at Musée National d'Art Moderne. More recently, in 1990, it was included in a major exhibition at Musée du Petit Palais. On this occasion, the then mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac, writing in the catalogue to the exhibition, noted that it had been over thirty years since Ensor had been shown in Paris and that he fully deserved to be honoured with this retrospective at one of the city's leading museums. He added that “…comme Cézanne, Munch, van Gogh, Gauguin Ensor est à l'origine de l'art moderne de l'Europe occidentale…”

Prestigious exhibitions at prominent museums

Looking at the list of exhibitions in which The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse has participated, it is immediately clear that more often than not it has featured in major Ensor exhibitions: large ensembles at prestigious venues. In many cases, the exhibitions have been co-funded by the government, as part of an effort to promote Belgian modern art, and the work of James Ensor in particular, around the world. KMSKA is often involved as a partner or organiser. James Ensor is generally presented in such shows as a pioneer of Modernism, alongside Belgian or foreign contemporaries. The selections have tended to focus on paintings from between 1880 and 1900, while his later work has been somewhat overlooked. However, things appear to be changing, as other aspects of Ensor's oeuvre are increasingly highlighted in thematic or stylistic presentations, as in Goya, Redon, Ensor: Grotesque Paintings and Drawings, an exhibition in Antwerp in 2009, and in Ensor Unmasked in Brussels in 2010/ 2011. Although Ensor is often pictured as an innovator, few exhibitions have attempted to confront his oeuvre with work by younger artists. Among the few exceptions was a show entitled Hareng Saur: Ensor and Contemporary Art, organised by the Museum of Fine Arts and SMAK in Ghent in 2010, and the 2013 exhibition in Silkeborg entitled jorn<<<ensor, which showed Ensor alongside Asger Jorn. Jorn was introduced to the work of Ensor in 1937 by art dealer and Ensor collector Herbert Garvens von Garvensburg.

Label on the canvas stretcher, centre of the vertical bar.

Kunstmuseum Basel: art handlers preparing the display of the Ensor paintings.
 
LEFT: Label on the canvas stretcher, centre of the vertical bar. This “J. ENSOR exhibition” took place in “BALE” [in 1963]. Just over half a century on, the painting returned to Basel. RIGHT: Kunstmuseum Basel: art handlers preparing the display of the Ensor paintings. The exhibition, which travelled to Switzerland from Denmark, opened on Sunday 16 February 2014.

Nanny Schrijvers

More about the painting

James Ensor, The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse, 1889
Oil on canvas, 109 x 131.5 cm, signed and dated bottom left: Ensor 1889.
Purchased at the auction of the J. Burthoul collection at Galerie Georges Giroux, Brussels, in 1926, KMSKA inv. no. 2042

Exhibition history

  • 1890, Brussel, Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, Les XX. Bruxelles. VIIe exposition annuelle, nr. 4;1910, Antwerpen, Cercle Royal Artistique, Littéraire et Scientifique, nr. 46;
  • 1910, Rotterdam, Rotterdamsche Kunstkring, Tentoonstelling van Werken van James Ensor, nr. 48;
  • 1914, Antwerpen, Kunst van Heden. Tentoonstelling 1914, nr. 3;
  • 1914, Brussel, Paleis van het Jubelpark, Algemeene Tentoonstelling der Schoone Kunsten. Driejaarlijksche Salon, nr. 168;
  • 1920, Brussel, Galerie Georges Giroux, James Ensor, nr. 47, afb.;
  • 1926, Parijs, Galerie Barbazanges, pag. 21;
  • 1928, Leipzig, Leipziger Kunstverein, nr. 23;
  • 1928, Mannheim, Städtische Kunsthalle, James Ensor, nr. 23;
  • 1929, Brussel, Palais des Beaux-Arts, James Ensor, nr. 168;
  • 1932, Parijs, Musée National du Jeu de Paume, Jardin des Tuileries, L'oeuvre de James Ensor, nr. 56, afb.;
  • 1939, Parijs, La Gazette des Beaux-Arts et Beaux-Arts, Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Ensor, nr. 26;
  • 1945/ 1946, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 7 Belgische schilders, nr. 20;
  • 1946, Bern, Kunsthalle, Exposition sept peintres belges, nr. 20;
  • 1946, Parijs, Musée de l'Orangerie, Exposition sept peintres belges, nr. 18;
  • 1949, Charleroi, Salles de la Bourse, Cercle Artistique et Littéraire de Charleroi. XXIIIme Salon, nr. 23, afb.;
  • 1949, 's Gravenhage, Gemeentemuseum, Eretentoonstelling James Ensor, nr. 9;
  • 1949, Oostende, Palais des Thermes, Gloires de la Peinture Moderne. Hommage à James Ensor, nr. 9;
  • 1950, Bosvoorde, Salons van 't Hoog Huis, 5de Tentoonstelling, nr. 16;
  • 1950, Venetië, Biennale, s. c.;
  • 1951, Antwerpen, Koninklijk voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, James Ensor. Retrospectieve, nr. 77, afb. nr. 55;
  • 1951, New York, The Modern Museum of Art, James Ensor, nr. 32, afb. pag. 82;
  • 1951, Boston, The Institute of Contemporary Art, James Ensor, nr. 32, afb. pag. 82;
  • 1951, Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art, James Ensor, nr. 32, afb. pag. 82;
  • 1951, St. Louis, City Art Museum, James Ensor, nr. 32, afb. pag. 82;
  • 1953, Hasselt, Provincie Limburg, Ensor, s. c.;
  • 1954, Parijs, Musée National d'Art Moderne, James Ensor, nr. 42, afb. nr. 13;
  • 1954, München, Alte Pinakothek, s. c.;
  • 1955, Oostende, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, James Ensor, s. c.;
  • 1959, Krefeld, Museum Haus Lange, s. c.;
  • 1960, Londen, Marlborough Fine Art Limited, James Ensor. 1860-1949. A retrospective centenary exhibition, nr. 42, afb.;
  • 1960, Oostende, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Feestpaleis, James Ensor, nr. 55;
  • 1961, Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Ensor. 1860/1949, nr. 35, afb.;
  • 1961, Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Ensor. 1860/1949, nr. 35, afb.;
  • 1963, Basel, Kunsthalle, James Ensor, nr. 45, afb. nr. 45;
  • 1963, Münster, Landesmuseum Münster, James Ensor, nr. 45, afb. nr. 45;
  • 1968, Brugge, Provinciaal Hof, Vlaamse Symbolisten;
  • 1968, Antwerpen, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Vlaamse Symbolisten;
  • 1968, Recklinghausen, Kunsthalle, Ruhrfestspiele, Reiche des Fantastische. Von Moreau bis Heute, s. c.;
  • 1970, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, En liten bok om Ensor, nr. 97;
  • 1971, Londen, The Royal Academy of Arts, Ensor to Permeke. Nine Flemish Painters 1880-1950, nr. 110;
  • 1972, Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Ensor. Ein Maler aus dem späten 19.Jahrhundert, nr. 33, afb. pag. 101;
  • 1972, Kamakura, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Tentoonstelling James Ensor, nr. 15, afb.;
  • 1972, Nagoya, Prefectoraal Museum Aichi, Tentoonstelling James Ensor, nr. 15, afb.;
  • 1972, Fukuoka, Prefectoraal Museum, Tentoonstelling James Ensor, nr. 15, afb.;
  • 1972/ 1973, Kyoto, Nationaal Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Tentoonstelling James Ensor, nr. 15, afb.;
  • 1983, Antwerpen, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, James Ensor, nr. 71, afb. pag. 69;
  • 1983, Zürich, Kunsthaus Zürich, James Ensor, nr. 65, afb. pag. 201;
  • 1983/ 1984, Kobe, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, nr. 40, afb. pag. 64;
  • 1984, Kamakura, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, nr. 40, afb. pag. 64;
  • 1984, Saitama, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, nr. 40, afb. pag. 64;
  • 1984, Sendai, Miyagi Museum of Art, James Ensor, nr. 40, afb. pag. 64;
  • 1986/ 1987, Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Flemish Expressions. Representational painting in the twentieth century, nr. 28, afb. pag. 45;
  • 1987, Fort Lauderdale, Museum of Art, Flemish Expressions. Representational painting in the twentieth century, nr. 28, afb. pag. 45;
  • 1989, München, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, James Ensor. Belgien um 1900, nr. 25, afb. pag. 107;
  • 1990, Parijs, Musée du Petit Palais, James Ensor, nr. 123, afb. pag. 174;
  • 1991, Antwerpen, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, In dienst van de kunst. Antwerps mecenaat rond 'Kunst van Heden' (1905-1959). Retrospectieve tentoonstelling, nr. 65, afb. p. 97;
  • 1993/ 1994, Antwerpen, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, In depot / uit depot. De modernen in het koninklijk museum;
  • 1996/ 1997, Oostende, PMMK, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Van Ensor tot Delvaux. Ensor. Spilliaert. Permeke. Magritte. Delvaux, afb. pag. 118;
  • 1999/ 2000, Brussel, Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, Ensor, nr. 86, afb. pag. 149;
  • 2009, Antwerpen, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Goya, Redon, Ensor. Groteske schilderijen en tekeningen, afb. pag. 164;
  • 2009, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, afb. nr. 56, pag. 149;
  • 2009/ 2010, Parijs, Musée d'Orsay, James Ensor, nr. 75, afb. pag. 163;
  • 2010, Antwerpen, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Closing Time. Jan Vanriet, afb. pag. 204;
  • 2010/ 2011, Brussel, ING Cultuurcentrum, Ensor ontmaskerd, nr. 218, afb. pag. 194;
  • 2011, Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum, James Ensor. Universum van een fantast, afb. pag. 108;
  • 2012, Silkeborg, Museum Jorn, jorn<<<ensor, nr. 6, afb. pag. 88;
  • 2013/ 2014, Ordrupgaard, James Ensor Fra Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen og schweiziske samlinger, nr. 113, afb;
  • 2014, Basel, Kunstmuseum, Die überraschten Masken: James Ensor aus dem Königlichen Museum für Schöne Künste Antwerpen und Schweizer Sammlungen, nr. 113, afb.

Information and comments

If you would like to share your knowledge or exclusive information with the Ensor Research Project, or to comment on any of the articles published as part of this ongoing project, please leave your personal details using our online form

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Xavier TRICOT, James Ensor. Leven en werk. Oeuvre-catalogus van de schilderijen, Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2009, p. 301 (no. 302) makes reference to the first exhibition of “Wouse” at Les XX, but adds “ refused” without further clarification. In the biographical section (p. 86), the author nonetheless lists the painting as one of those shown by Ensor at Les XX.

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