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James Ensor, turn-of-the-century maverick

James Ensor, one of the great mavericks of late 19th- and early 20th-century art, is the subject of an excellent exhibition of prints at Theodore B. Donson Ltd. here.

Ensor was an artist who always did things his way, and that meant not only painting and etching traditional figure studies, portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, but also producing some of the most outrageously derisive and fun-filled works of the past 100 years.

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He was a brilliant colorist, a superb draftsman, one of the most imaginative of etchers, and the most idiosyncratic -- and important -- Belgian painter since the days of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel.

Because there has never been anyone quite like him, and because he made it a point to step on almost everyone's toes, it took Belgium and the rest of the world a long time to acknowledge his genius -- even longer than it took them to recognize his contemporaries Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Munch. In fact many people still aren't really comfortable with the more exotic side of this brilliantly naughtly iconoclast, with his strange mask paintings and complex compositions full of cavorting demons, angels, skeletons, wicked insects, and clowns.

A good introduction to the whole of Ensor's world is through his prints. These run the full gamut from the early realistic portraits and landscapes to the more exotic works of his prime and later years (although his last 45 years, unlike his first 45, resulted in very little of originality or value). Such an introduction would leave us unaware of his genius as a colorist, but it would still give us a hint of it through the numerous etchings he worked over and embellished with watercolor.

This current exhibition is an excellent one, and includes not only 61 of Ensor's prints, but three of the original plates as well -- including the canceled zinc plate for the first version of "The Cathedral," one of his best etchings and certainly one of the half dozen or so greatest prints of the latter half of the 19th century.

Since the cancellation of this plate consists of only a deeply gouged line across one corner (and across a blank area at that), I was concerned it might fall into the wrong hands, be repaired, and be used to create new impressions (after all, impressions of some of Rembrandt's etchings were still being pulled as recently as 1906 -- after which a number of plates were "retired" to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris). But I was assured it and the other two plates were not for sale and that they belonged to a thoroughly reputable collector.

My concern was not for the number of impressions around, but for their quality. Ensor's prints are extraordinary delicate, and "The Cathedral" is one of the most delicately executed of all. From top to bottom, from the spires, windows, and facade of the towering cathedral, to the crowded mass of humanity in the lower portion of the etching, it is delicate line that not only defines every detail but also conveys Ensor's remarkable sensitivity to light and movement.

This print is a graphic masterpiece that makes its point with the most subtle of touches, and the idea that we might be subjected to a number of increasingly washedout impressions hardly bears thinking about!

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Sensitivity to idea and to medium runs like a leitmotif throughout Ensor's prints. That applies as much to those worked-over in color as to those in black and white. I have seldom seen color so sensitively applied to line and tone as in his tiny "Ferme Flamande" or "The Garden of Love." In both instances the color seems intrinsic to the original conception and not merely an enriching afterthought. And the color added to another of his masterpieces, "The Entry of Christ into Brussels," turns that print into a pictorial statement halfway between the original state of the etching and the huge painting of the same subject.

When all is said and done, however, it's in his use of line and in his exquisite tonalities that his graphic genius is most clear. Multiple proof of that can be found in this show -- in the fantastic "Peculiar Insects," the broadly conceived "Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels," the wildly grotesque series "The Seven Capital Sins," and, most especially, in that minor masterpiece of black and white, "Boats Aground."

This first-rate exhibition at Theodore B. Donson Ltd. wi ll remain open to the public through June 13.

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