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Sons and mothers

John Burnside peers behind the masks of James Ensor in Ostend

John Burnside | September/October 2015

In 1976, when I was home from Cambridge Tech on Easter vacation, my mother announced, to my father’s dismay, that she wanted to “go abroad” in the summer. At first, thinking myself firmly on the sidelines, I encouraged the idea: at 46, Mum had never been farther from home in the East Midlands than Blackpool, and I thought a trip would do her good. I also liked any plan that might discomfit my father, with whom I’d spent most of my teens feuding. It was only two days later, when she added that this holiday might also serve as my graduation present, that I balked: I hadn’t been away with the family since a disastrous fortnight at a Clacton holiday camp six years earlier, which I spent wandering the seafront in the small hours, unable to sleep for my father’s epic snoring (by day, I napped in the camp cinema, where they played “Dr. Who and the Daleks” every afternoon). By now, though, it was too late to backtrack and, a few months later, we found ourselves, my parents, my younger sister and I, on the ferry to Ostend.

I have no idea why my mother wanted to go there – all she would say was that it sounded nice in the brochure – but with the die irretrievably cast, I resolved to play the good son, taking part, and being one of the family. However, thanks to my father, those good resolutions didn’t last and, apart from a couple of excruciating coach tours to Ghent and Sluis, I spent much of that holiday wandering the narrow streets around Ost­end’s main square, where, among other attractions, I found a surprisingly good Museum of Fine Arts, now rehoused at Mu.ZEE, on Romestraat. That in turn led me to the tall, thin house on Vlaander­enstraat where the painter, musician and occasional writer James Ensor had lived and worked. He was there from 1917, when he inherited the property from an aunt, until his death at the age of 89 in 1949. By then, Ensor was no longer the scandalous figure he had been back in the 1880s. There are those who claim that his later work shows evidence of a slackening-off, of decline even, but I beg to differ. The paintings he made at the Vlaanderenstraat house were certainly quieter, but they have a philosophical depth, and an insight into space and time, that sets them squarely in the oeuvre as valuable works by a major artist. 

A surreal Wunderkammer: the entrance to the Ensorhuis – once a shop, selling shells and souvenirs, belonging to James Ensor’s Uncle Leopold

From the street, the Ensor­huis didn’t look like much, but the moment I walked through the door, I was hooked. I even tried to get my mother to visit, but she said it didn’t sound like her kind of thing, and I had to agree. I had come to see that nothing I liked was her kind of thing and it saddened me that we had so little in common. 

Now, returning to the Ensorhuis, I am struck by how little it has changed. The ground floor still harks back to pre-Ensor days, when it was his Uncle Leopold’s shell and souvenir shop (Ensor’s parents also owned a chain of souvenir outlets, importing shells, Oriental vases, semi-precious stones and masks for the annual carnival celebrations which James would re-imagine, sometimes as deeply sinister images, throughout his career). Perhaps the most interesting exhibits here are the Fiji mermaids, bizarre curiosities made by grafting the head and forearms of a monkey onto the body of a fish, but the whole room is a spectacular jumble of carnival masks, marine life, mannequin heads, Japanese fans, exotic seashells and ghostly corals, a kind of surreal Wunderkammer that seems less deliberately contrived than a matter of natural serendipity. Yet fascinating as this lower level is, what matters to me now is the upper floor, where Ensor created the extraordinary paintings that, the moment I saw them, back in the 1970s, became a permanent part of my inner landscape. 

Weird and wonderful: John Burnside is fascinated by Ensor’s Fiji mermaids, which have the heads of monkeys and the bodies of fish

What attracts me most is the variety of the work. Ensor is renowned for his nightmarish, sometimes scatological images of the Belgian carnival, in which he himself would appear as a Christ figure being mocked by the crowd (which included fellow artists and politicians). Yet, throughout his career, he also created quiet meditative works on transience and le néant (nothingness), from “The Bathing Hut. Afternoon, July 29, 1876”, through the “Still Life with Blue Pitcher” of 1891, to the late seascapes and interiors. At the same time, the grotesque spirit of “Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring” (1891) recurs in the strangest places, as in the seemingly routine portrait of a lady who, when she refused to pay his fee, found herself transformed into a buck-toothed, pockmarked crone.

That no original works are kept at the Ensorhuis is not important (the pictures that line the Blue Salon, which also houses Ensor’s harmonium, are high-quality reproductions, but the originals are elsewhere, in national galleries all over the world). What matters is the sense of the man himself that this house provides, a sense that, for me, is wonderfully contradictory. Here was a self-proclaimed anarchist who, during the course of a seemingly polite bourgeois existence, in a polite seaside resort, created some of the most unsettling works of the early 20th century – works that, foreshadowing Surrealism, and Dada, were considered deeply scandalous in his youth and even, on occasion, banned. It comes as no surprise that Ensor, in an address to Albert Einstein in 1933, would say, “Let us justly appreciate the old opportune Belgian motto: Light bursts forth from the collision of ideas”, for, like Einstein, Ensor himself was a happy bundle of contradictions and collisions. His art reveals the constant interplay between complementary forces that, moment by moment, gives rise to a present order and, at the same time, exposes any permanent condition we might impose upon the real as temporary and provisional, a mask for the time being that, more often than not, is the most we can hope for.

The strange thing about going back to a place is that, no matter how familiar it may look, something is missing. For me, at the Ensorhuis, it is the masks: yes, the house is full of them but, over the years, my imagination has added hundreds more, masks I have gathered from Ensor’s work, carnival masks I have seen elsewhere, masks with no connection to Ensor, all pulled in from memory and compiled to make my own version of the house in which the stairwells are deeper, the hallways wider and higher, every wall a sea of plaster and papier-mâché and shellac faces. Certainly, what appealed to me back then was that mask collection – and my reasons may have been more personal than I realised. Masks conceal, but they can also slip, and each slip brings a new surprise. Clearly, there has always been something unknown behind the façade, but when we do catch a glimpse of that other, hidden face, it is often very different from what we assumed, or hoped for, or feared. At the same time, revelation is a two-way process. According to Ensor, “vision alters while it observes”, and this is especially true when, having been granted a chance glimpse of what was once hidden, we are surprised, and altered, by finding that what we see is a far cry from what we had imagined. At such times, it’s not just that a secret has been laid open to view, it’s that our way of seeing changes, opening onto a wholly other world, familiar in some ways, vitally different in others.

Here’s looking at you: Ensor inherited masks from his uncle and reimagined them in his work

I see, now, how personal all this had become back in 1976, because it was during our holiday in Ostend that I first saw past the mask my mother kept for me. Of course, I knew her life was full of disappointments, but until then I hadn’t quite recognised that I was one of them. I may have gained a degree from an obscure technical college (a college I’d attended because I couldn’t think of anything else to do), but by that summer it was clear that I had no ambitions, no prospects and no overall plan, other than to avoid being part of “the system”. By that summer, I was no longer the gifted son, destined for the successful life my mother had begun to hope for when the teachers at one school after another remarked that I was a clever child, a boy who could go on to great things, a boy, one said, who could do “anything”. She had been fed those stories right up to the point when I got expelled from Pope John XXIII Comprehensive in Corby and, even after that, she had thought I would return to the fold, if not as a gold-medal-winning physicist like my cousin John, then at least as a teacher, like my Aunt Eleanor, or a civil servant, like Uncle Tom. But that summer even those more modest successes must have seemed remote – and one afternoon over tea and cakes in the hotel lobby, with my sister upstairs in her room and my father off in a bar somewhere, she asked me straight out what I planned to do with my life. It was the question my father frequently taunted me with, but she had never asked it before. Now, suddenly, she did – and I had no answer.

“Those things don’t matter to me,” I said, aware of how lame I sounded.

She pursed her lips. “Well, then. What does?”

I didn’t say anything – and it was then that I saw how hurt she was, not just by my father’s drinking and general unreliability, or by the injustices of a class system that kept people like her down all their lives, but by what she saw as my failure. It must have seemed a perverse failure, too, because I had a degree and that should have counted for something. But I didn’t give a damn about the degree, and I didn’t give a damn about success or failure, either.

“So what are you going to do?” she said. “If you don’t watch out, you’ll end up at the Works, like your father. Or in a factory, like me and your sister.”

“Well,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?”

She didn’t say anything then, she just sat staring at me in disbelief, no doubt wondering what had happened to make me so indifferent. Instead of reassuring her, I found myself closing down, turning inward, refusing even to acknowledge her concerns. What was the point, anyway? We were family, yes, but we occupied entirely separate worlds and I wasn’t going to jump through the usual hoops so she could tell my aunts and cousins how proud she was of me. I don’t know if she saw this in my face, or if she was simply at the end of a long process of giving up on me (and from that moment on, I think she did give up, though she loved me to the end), but whatever the reason, she just went upstairs to her room. We didn’t say another word about it, ever again.

There is a painting of Ensor’s from 1915, entitled “Ma Mère Morte”, in which the dead woman lies in the background, her hands clasped around a rosary, mouth slackened by decay, while the foreground is given over to an eerie still life, as a variety of medicine bottles with variously coloured labels catch and refract the light. I’d seen this painting, though not, as I recall, on that 1976 holiday, but I had thought it was housed elsewhere; yet here it almost is, in the Ensor room at Mu.ZEE, an image both deeply poignant and strangely matter-of-fact, one of a number of works (four drawings and two paintings, at least) that Ensor made in a furious bout of creativity during the three days after his mother died. She had supported him, financially and morally, through the hardest times and, if the gossip about her husband’s drinking is to be trusted, she had borne her own portion of hardship. Now, in the painting, she is empty, undone, utterly cleansed by death. At the same time, she is not so much decaying as dissolving into the light, her body almost as transparent as the bottles in the foreground. This is not to suggest that Ensor, a confirmed atheist, wants us to see anything religious in these images (and the drawings he made at her deathbed, especially “Ma Mère Morte III”, are utterly uncompromising in this regard); what comes across instead is a sense of hard-won mortal release, both from hardship and from a lifetime of being masked.

Removing the mask: John Burnside returns to the museum that revised his view of his mother

 

Had she lived a few years more, my mother would have been partly gratified by the modest successes that came my way (a job in the civil service, then a middle-ranking position in the computer industry). But six months after that trip to Ostend, she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer; six months after that, we buried her in Corby cemetery, far from home, among people who were not her kin.

A fortnight before she died, I went into her room and found her lying very still, her eyes closed, the July sunlight spilling from the window onto her dressing table. She seemed impossibly remote, wonderfully other, the way those we love sometimes seem when dreaming – and I entertained the brief fantasy that, if I could talk to her as she lay in that suspended state, I could make her see that I’d never have been happy with what she thought of as happiness. That fantasy melted away, however, as I gazed at her face: serene, for the moment, unburdened, but just one more in a series of masks. Until then, I had assumed that all our masks were intended to conceal, and that what they concealed was the real self, a fixed entity who suffered pain and shame, a self that needed to be kept hidden, if only for its own protection or, in the case of my mother’s dismay, to protect others. If I had paid more atten­tion back in Ensor’s house, however, I might have understood sooner that, of all our many life masks, none of them, not even the most fleeting or beatific, is any more true or false than any of the others.

Ensorhuis open every day except Tuesday, 10am-12pm, 2pm-5pm; muzee.be/en/ensor

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