by Sue Hubbard
In 1933 the Belgium artist, James Ensor, met up with Einstein, when the latter was on his way to the States, for lunch on the coast near Ostend. Walking along the beach Einstein tried to explain the theory of relativity to the bemused artist. “What do you paint?” Einstein asked. To which the painter of masks replied “Nothing”. Whether this response was existential, bombastic or simply bloody minded it's hard to say but it does illustrate something of the enigmatic complexity of one of Belgium's most celebrated artists who, despite a British father, is barely known in the UK.
That father was a bit of a wastrel and a drunkard who married beneath him and, with his Belgium wife, ran a souvenir and curiosity shop in Ostend filled with an array of parrots, exotic masks, and even a monkey. These curios were to have a profound influence on his son's later imagery, imagery that has continued to intrigue as well as baffle. Opposed to ideas of classical beauty, James Ensor was equally infuriated by any notion that an artwork might need to have a social function. An outspoken exponent of ‘the prestige of the new', he considered the greatest artistic sin to be banality. Although he'd go on to have a profound effect on Expressionism and Surrealism, the orthodoxies of Modernism held little interest for him and, when he spoke of them, it was with limited understanding. Yet he produced many stunningly original works. Now the Belgium artist, Luc Tuymans, has curated a show at the Royal Academy that brings this enigmatic artist to a wider international public.
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by Sue Hubbard
In their last White Cube show it was nasty Nazis doing rude things in public. This time, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens, elegantly revamped by Zaha Hadid, it's the Klu Klax Klan. Larger than life figures wearing hand-knitted hippy rainbow socks and Birkenstocks, watching us from behind their pointy hoods, watching them. The fact that the Princess Diana Memorial is just down the road might, for those of an ironic disposition, raise a wry smile. It seems that the professional bad boys of Hoxton, Jake and Dinos Chapman, are working their way through the list of clichéd baddies. What next? Members of Al-Qaeda in polka-dot bikinis?
They are very clever. Clever in the sense that they anticipate all criticism of their work and incorporate it into what they do. The whole point is to fart loudly in the drawing room, to épater le bourgeois, as if the bourgeoisie actually care very much, for we've seen it all before. Their comic book imagery looks tired and passé: the appropriation of and drawing on older art work, the sexualised manikins of children, the Boy's Own Air Fix models of Waffen-SS killing fields – the piles of maimed bodies, the severed heads, the disembowellings and Nazi symbols ironized by the McDonalds logo – like some Disney version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That the self-appointed naughty boy of literature, Will Self, (forgive the pun) was asked to write their catalogue essay is no surprise. Boys like gangs.
When interviewed they are extremely articulate. They use all the right jargon. The bronze sculptures at the beginning of the exhibition play with modernist notions of the body as machine and bronze as the ultimate fine art material. Their Little Death Machine (Castrated) is a Heath Robinson contraption of hammers, circular saws, castrated penises and sliced brains. It's as if Mary Shelley's Frankenstein had collaborated with Goya. Of course the whole point of these school-boy doodlings – as if under the desk, away from the teacher's gaze, they've drawn the rudest and naughtiest things they could think of – is that they've been cast in bronze and are now ‘art'. You can almost hear the Chapmans guffaw in the wings as they watch visitors peer at each piece in deep concentration as though some arcane truth might be revealed. But the titles: I want to be popular, Striptease, I laughed in the face of adversity but it laughed back louder show their hard-wired cynicism. The Chapman brothers don't do ‘meaningful', though they do do irritating particularly well.
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