Rose, Rose, Rose à mes yeux. James Ensor and still life in Belgium from 1830 to 1930.

James Ensor, Rozen (Roses), 1892. Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België,Brussel. Foto : J. Geleyns.

From 16.12.2023 until 14.04.2024, Mu.ZEE is staging the exhibition Rose, Rose, Rose à mes yeux. James Ensor and still life in Belgium from 1830 to 1930. This exhibition, curated by Prof. Dr. Bart Verschaffel and Sabine Taevernier, focuses entirely on James Ensor's still life works for the first time. Some fifty works from Ensor's significant production in this area - from the first bourgeois examples to the ‘haunted’ still life works of the 1990s to the ethereal, dreamy examples of the late period – serve as the backbone and calibration for an overview of still life in Belgium between 1830 and 1930. In this period, various talented painters are looking for ways to recharge the genre, which has become an ostentatious, decorative genre without artistic commitment, both in pictorial and iconographic terms. Here, Ensor illustrates the general trend and his own exceptional quality at the same time.

The exhibition first provides an overview of the 19th century, academic, decorative tradition from Antoine Wiertz to Frans Mortelmans, with many forgotten but highly skilled and in their time highly successful painters such as Jean Robie and Hubert Bellis. Particular attention is paid to totally forgotten female painters such as Alice Ronner and Georgette Meunier, as well as the isolated figure of Henri De Braekeleer. This is followed by a selection of painters who, already within the accepted tradition of modernism, focus on still life, but themselves continue to adhere to the customs of the genre such as Louis Thevenet and Léon De Smet. In addition, a number of painters are included who, like Ensor, create highly personal, powerful images by means of their pictorial approach and image composition such as Leon Spilliaert, Gustave Van de Woestyne, Frits Van den Berghe and the much less well-known Walter Vaes. The exhibition concludes with artists who blow up the fixed image space of the ‘theatre of things’: Jean Brusselmans and René Magritte.

Exceptional scenography
For Rose, rose, rose à mes yeux, the “last exhibition” pending the upcoming renovation of the museum building, a special scenography was designed by Kris Coremans and Guy Châtel (ssa/xx - architects) at Mu.ZEE. It creates a foreground for the exhibition while the numerous spatial aspects of the existing building have been relegated to the wings. The scenography juxtaposes the former department store in which Mu.ZEE is located with the model of a 19th-century museum. The rough wooden structure evokes the contours of a classic museum with a middle room and side galleries. The still lifes on display are hung from silky poplar panelling. The curators chose to hang the paintings close together, once again as in 19th-century museums, in order to give the visitor the best opportunity to look at them and compare them. The tall wooden structure remains visible in the upper and lower registers of the wall construction. The central Ensor room is a shrine. The panelling is continuous across the entire perimeter. In the galleries surrounding it, where the decorative 19th-century application of still life is shown, the panelling has been interrupted here and there to open up perspectives and look through, and thus presents the existing museum building as a visible context. The room dedicated to the modernist questioning and problem-solving of the “still life” genre differs from the conventional rectangle with two sloping walls. It leads to the Epilogue, where the paintings that characterise the dissolution of the genre are shown against the white museum walls.

The exhibition features loans from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and from numerous public institutions and private collections from the Netherlands, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Monaco.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication in three languages (Mercatorfonds, Brussels, 2023) with, in addition to the CatalogUE of the works on display, contributions on the significance of still life in James Ensor’s works and the history of still life in Belgium.

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