Although the romantic tendencies in us all sometimes causes us to think so, seldom does an artist's idea for a painting spring full-blown from his mind in some miraculous flash of God-given spiritual brilliance. If that is true of the individual artist and the individual painting, it also holds true in terms of art movements as well. Take Expressionism, for example. With its deepest roots in Germany with Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, the tendrils splayed out in several different directions, to France and le Fauves even extending to Russia, Austria, England, and Norway, each of which had a branch of the movement. It doesn't take an art history genius to recognise the seed that started it all--Vincent van Gogh. But van Gogh alone cannot account for the broad diversity sprouting from this stalk. Van Gogh was luscious, sweet, and despite his background, optimistic. Expressionism also had a dour, sad, bitter, pessimistic flavour as well. Where did this element come from?
He was a little younger than van Gogh--born in 1860. He was from Belgium. His name was James Ensor, and he is as unknown, even today, as Vincent is famous. But unlike Vincent, he lived long enough (89 years) to see his influence felt in Expressionism, even though he was never really a part of the movement. An 1891 painting is typical. Wildly colourful and overtly humorous, it's entitled, Two Skeletons Fighting over a Dead Man. The influence of Hieronymous Bosch is obvious. The painting is set on a sort of stage with various masked figures peering in from the wings and the audience while a grotesque man hangs suspended by his neck in the centre (presumably the dead man). On either side, two skeletal figures dressed in ragged women's clothes threaten one another with a broom, fishing pole, and umbrella. On the floor lying between them is another foppishly dressed skeleton. (What? Another dead man? Or is it a dead woman?). The painting is a riot!
But there was another side of Ensor. A still-life painted the following year, while no less gruesome and only slightly less grotesque, bares the marks of a distinct Chardin influence (an 18th century French painter). The painting is entitled The Skate, (skate being a kind of fish.) The colours are more expressive, brighter, higher in contrast than anything Chardin ever did, but the work is no less realistic. And it is all the more powerful in its impact because of this realism. It is raw. Dominating the composition is the underside of a horrendously ugly stingray with a face like a monkey and a tail section to make one shudder. To the left are added the fresh skate and a raw, red, freshly caught conch (and I don't mean just the shell). Nothing from this period compares with this abrasive strain of expressionism except perhaps the work of Edvard Munch, who was an almost exact contemporary of Ensor. Munch is the third spiritual icon of early Expressionism. But unlike Ensor, he was more than just an early influence, he became an Expressionist, seeing the movement through to the end.