Lance Esplund unpacks the James Ensor show at MoMA in the Wall Street Journal:
As a storyteller, Ensor had a lot to convey. But as a painter he was missing something essential—most obviously a feeling for drawing and color. As intriguing, forceful and fantastical as some of his pictures are, Ensor was rarely able to give light and form to his visions. And although there are some striking exceptions, especially in some of the prints, posters and smaller drawings and paintings, generally he remained a graphic artist who used color locally or as a tint, rather than as an emotive force. Ensor made the grave mistake of substituting yellow and white for light. He also, too often, produced densely packed pictures piled high with visionary pyrotechnics, instead of compositions built up out of strong drawing, vivid light and emotional power.
More to our purposes, he draws a line straight from Ensor to contemporary artists:
I understand the current allure of Ensor. He is considered to be something of a rogue and an “Outsider” artist—a winning combination. And like a lot of contemporary art, from Tracey Emin’s tampons to Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull and John Currin’s grotesque porn-puffs, his work shocks and seduces. But compared with truly visionary, light-filled pictures by Rembrandt, Seurat, Redon, William Blake and van Gogh, Ensor’s freakish carnival masks, religious subjects, lampoons and bathroom humor fall not into the realm of the mysteries of art but into that of the locker room and sideshow.
The Uncommitted Fantasist (Wall Street Journal)