The Belgian Port Town That Inspired James Ensor’s Provocative Art


“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.

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The cafe at De Grote Post. The popular cultural center was created from the town’s beautiful former main post office.

Credit
Alex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times

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.

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Ostend is not Versailles. The atmosphere is appealingly bluff and briny, and the fish market next to the port sells piles of tiny gray North Sea shrimp and huge flat-winged skates.

Credit
Alex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times

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.

What to See

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.

Where to Stay

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.

Where to Eat

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.

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