Friday, July 24, 2009

Ensor, Modernity, Nationalism





I saw the Ensor exhibit at MOMA  last week—I was deeply impressed by his idiosyncrasy, his combination of rigorous draftsmanship and adventurous uses of color and imagery, and his wining combination of parody and distortion with a generous embrace of the world as it is. It also struck me as interesting that “Les XX,” the avant-garde movement to which Ensor belonged for some years, was the first organized European avant-garde, and these Belgians were the first set of “modern painters.”, or “painter of modern life” to use the phrase Baudelaire so famously employed of Constantin Guys—the first set of them. The painter of modern life is, by definition, not celebratory of modernity, not a ‘Futurist', not a “modern sublime”,  and Ensor’s paintings of modern life indeed express its dinginess and banality. Yet, importantly, they are not, as the works of so many later modernists were , meant as a critique of industrial modernity. Indeed, Belgium, as a nation, as a compound of French and Flemish that was when Ensor began working, behind only Germany and Italy as the most ‘recent' nation of Europe, owed its national identity to early and successful industrialization, and Ensor’s canvassing of industrial dinginess, though again not overtly celebratory of it, was an affirmation of the everyday modernity of ‘his’ Belgium, and maybe even an attempt to position it as ‘cutting-edge”.


Flash forward over a hundred years. Ensor was  half-Flemish (his father was English) and worked in an artistic environment as French-speaking as Flemish-speaking. Moreover, the entire industrial identity of Belgium, anchored in the ‘Sillon Industrial’ had a French emphasis; the Flemish were seen as rural, ‘having fallen off the turnip truck’ the French were initiates into la vie modern. Ensor’s Ostend, as a beach resort, was hardly part of this as such, but it was not severed form it either. But, lo and behold, the 2009 Ensor exhibition is funded partially by Flanders House, an organization representing specifically Flemish trade and cultural interests in many world cities now including New York.


Without taking sides in Belgium’s internal politics or expressing a preference—which I do not have either way—for Flemish over Walloon nationalism, I must observe that Flemish nationalism is unusual in being so assertive auspicated with postmodernity. It is because Flanders did not industrialize as much as Wallonia did that it was eligible for the information age; it is like the Research Triangle or Silicon Valley as opposed to the Detroit or Cleveland of the Sillon Industrial. Now, nationalism is supposed to be rooted in ancient loyalties, or conversely bound together by modern economic centralization and its communicative appurtenances such as print culture; postmodernism, the information age is supposed to globalize, decenter. Yet Flemish nationalism boasts of how postmodern it is, how globally attuned, how unlike the plodding old Rust Belt of Wallonia. And Ensor’s emphatic embrace of ‘modern life’ in its deromanticized dingy avatar does not fit a nationalism that bundles local self-assertion with a celebratory affirmation of up-to-date business practices and global exchange…on the other hand, perhaps the current economic crisis will make this vision of nationalism itself a back number.

Nonetheless, Flanders House should be thanked for helping mount the show, which I enjoyed and would recommend—free with a New School ID by the way!

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