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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Never Mind The Pollocks, Here’s James Ensor

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Abstract Expressionism – Royal Academy

A rare trip to the smoke saw me divert to the Royal Academy to catch the Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx as we hipsters call it) exhibition which is on until 2nd January. I have had a difficult relationship with modern abstract art. I often come away thinking of the Emperor’s new clothes. Is there really something in it or is the artist just taking the piss? Wandering around the galleries, crammed with the monumental works of the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still in what is the largest exhibition of their works for over half a century, the old nagging doubts hit me again.

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Many of the works are monumental, vast acres of canvas daubed with colour, geometric design and dripping paint. Impressive or provocative as any one of the works on display may be, to see so many at one time dulls the senses. Too much of a good thing, perhaps. For me, the Jackson Pollock gallery was the highlight of the show, a heady mix of manic design and frenetic brush work. I may not rush out and buy one but there was a kind of hypnotic quality about them that drew me in.

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Rothko has the Central Hall to himself and this is where I really struggled, great canvasses with blocks of colour in geometric design. The first was mildly interesting but after a while the repetition of a theme started to grate. You could see why Rothko is one of the most defaced artists. The find for me was Still who at least presented you with a riot of colour, reds and oranges clashing in a painting that rises majestically to the ceiling and another which features white and pink with bright red, blood like splashes – a really unsettling iage.

I began to feel I was being suborned by what is a wonderfully curated exhibition of some 150 paintings – the room featuring drawings and photographs is a tad unnecessary and seems a bit of an afterthought – until I came across Ad Reinhardt’s enormous canvas filled with black paint. Normality restored, I thought.

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More to my taste was the exhibition in the Sackler Wing of the Belgian born artist, James Ensor (1860 – 1949), entitled Intrigue, on until 29th January. He was an artist with a keen sense of humour, his paintings full of caricatures, skeletons and the macabre. The painting that really took my fancy was The Skate, a wonderful image of the fish with a tragi-comic expression, lounging languidly on a table as if it had just had a satisfying meal, rather than about to become a meal itself. I also enjoyed the portraits of Ensor a century on, a lounging skeleton (natch).

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His art is wide ranging, from caricature to landscape – the picture Afternoon in Ostend, is dark and brooding with an eerie green glow above the roof tops – and his Seven Deadly Sins reveal an artist with a mordant, satirical eye. His most famous work, The Intrigue, has a crowd of masked figures surrounding a mother whose baby is a doll, an amusing but slightly disturbing image.

Unsettling for sure but wonderfully evocative with images full of small details that unless you really look you might miss. His caricature of Sloth includes an image of snails crawling up on to the bedspread – a powerful image of how long the laggards have been asleep. I left the RA into the London drizzle with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, my faith in art to surprise and entertain restored. A marvellous exhibition.

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