Ensor stimulates me most in his crowd scenes. These are also the works I associate with most. I have in mind, of course, Christ's Entry into Brussels from 1889, but also some of the smaller drawings such as The Cuirassiers at Waterloo. All the same, there is a fundamental difference between his approach to the crowd and mine.
Ensor paints or sketches thousands of small figures engaged in noisy activities: brass bands, carnival processions, beach games, battle scenes, and so on. The compositions, on the other hand, temper the bustle of these characters. They are swallowed up by their surroundings as though their activities signify nothing more than a wave in the sea or the passing of a cloud. Albrecht Altdorfer had already done something similar in his famous painting The Battle of Alexander. Thousands of soldiers join battle amid an impressive landscape beneath an all-absorbing sun. The more vigorously they struggle, the more ludicrous they appear within the general context of the work.
More explicitly than Altdorfer, Ensor reduces his small figures to purely ornamental elements within the general composition of the work. They merge with the wisps of smoke, pennants and clouds or glow in the landscape and dissolve as in an expansive Jugendstil ornament. The whole often looks like one big tangle all over, as in a painting by Jackson Pollock.
Ensor's masks emerge from these tangles. They first appeared in the wallpaper of the baroque interiors that he painted. For Ensor, his surroundings are a tangle that runs wild, a meaningless aberration. The accumulation of masks, ribbons and phantoms forms the ornamental wallpaper of the mental spaces in which Ensor moves. He counterposes himself to these turbulent crowds, however, as an oasis of peace and reflection. He appears as a beacon of idealised purity, sometimes in the form of a new Christ. He is the immaculate hero who, as in a Hollywood film, operates in a world of perversion and corruption. There is no caricature or mask of him. The more he is surrounded by strange company, the better he emerges as a unique person who is elevated above this blind instinct. And of course we would like to identify with this hero and not with his surroundings.
All the same, I do not see myself as one of those heroes, but as someone who, on the contrary, wants to think these crowds from the inside. I am one of the crowd. In fact, I want to be the sum total of all the members of the crowd. So I do not see my artistic production in terms of myself, but in terms of the sum total of all those who make images. No l'enfer c'est les autres, just l'enfer.
The video work Waterloo Forever consists of images of the re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo that is held there every year. There is no director. Everyone is director and actor at the same time. Even Napoleon is just one of the crowd.
Koen Theys – catalogue ‘Hareng Saur – Ensor and Contemporary Art’