The shutters are down, the promenade is deserted, the belle-époque villas are closed for the season. Waves thunder beneath a grey sky and the Belgian coast in October has the grainy, monochrome look of an old film still. But just occasionally light glimmers: an empty tearoom, a crammed souvenir shop.

In one of these, full of seashells, trinkets and masks, James Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860 and died in 1949. A visionary recluse who only once left the resort, for a brief spell at art school in Brussels, he painted versions of those masks and shells for seven decades, living through impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, surrealism, art informel.

Every one of these owed something to him, yet he remains a bizarre, fringe figure – comprehensible only in the bourgeois yet eerie milieu of fin-de-siècle coastal Belgium but impossible to ignore in the broader history of 20th-century European art.

Ostend’s new exhibition Ensor and the Avant Gardes by the Sea is the first to tease out these myriad connections. It puts Ensor in the company of Courbet and Monet, Theo van Rysselberghe and Gauguin, Magritte and Dalí, Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinsky, and each time he holds up superbly.

Across a labyrinth of galleries on three floors, his luminous world of masquerade, carnival masks, pierrots and skeletons compels at every turn and demonstrates how, from start to finish, this ferociously private, individual painter assimilated life around him for his own artistic purposes.

A wonderful impressionist interior, from a distance a shimmer of pinks and greens, gold-framed screens and dangling red lampshades, turns out on closer inspection to contain a skeleton ensconced in one black chair, its golden-slippered feet insolently perched on another. “The Skeleton Looking at the Chinoiserie” dates from 1885; by 1897, in “Death and the Masks”, the skull is centre-stage, bathed in a halo of light, eyeballs rolling, mouth grinning absurdly, while masked figures – faces distorted into bulbous blobs, mouths vast, crimson slashes – are composed from slab-like, aggressive brushwork.

Nearly half a century later, the skulls peer out still, long-nosed and mocking, over a shopfront of shells, vases and a giant artificial vegetable in the simplified, garish crimson and gold “Red Cabbage and Masks” of 1930. As the world darkened, Ensor’s palette took on an almost toxic brightness and his death’s heads began to look truly prophetic.

He began conventionally enough as a Belgian follower of impressionism; the inclusion here of his subtle land and seascapes, with their light-drenched, quivering skies – “Grand Marine”, “Roofs at Ostend” – alongside Monet’s serves to show how he mastered the genre only to transform it.

French impressionism set out to give the illusion of real appearances, but Ensor used it to suggest a fantastical disillusioned world where skeletons lurk in drawing rooms or, in “Old Lady with Masks”, a lustrous, living face, framed in lace and jewels and steadily looking out from the picture’s centre, is nudged towards death by a crowd of masks and skulls – turquoise, deathly white, murky brown.

Belgian art has always had a depressed undertow. The interest here is how Ensor distinguished himself from willowy fellow-symbolists such as Félicien Rops and Leon Spilliaert by his frenzied colour and violent, broken brushwork. This appealed a few years later to the German modernists – Emil Nolde’s totem-like figures in “The Tribute” and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Still Life with Statues” are fine examples here – who looked primarily to Van Gogh but also saw Ensor as a bridge linking impressionism and symbolism to expressionism.

Like Van Gogh, Ensor reacted against late-19th-century materialism with an intensely lonely, quasi-mystical fervour. His particular mix of pessimism and exuberance is rooted in the Flemish primitivism of Bosch and Brueghel, and found its greatest expression in his 1888 masterpiece “Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889”, a 14-ft canvas that is now at Los Angeles’ Getty Center and sadly not lent for this show.

In wild patches of glittery colour smeared on with knives, spatulas, both ends of a paintbrush, it depicts Christ – a self-portrait – riding a donkey into the Belgian capital at a carnival parade, preceded by a brass band, surrounded by political banners and ignored or sneered at by a mindless mob of buffoons, caricatures, masked revellers, a skeleton in a top hat, a social reformer dressed as a bishop, all swelling towards the viewer.

This furious drumbeat for modern art, a shrill cry from an isolated artist ahead of his times, was not exhibited for decades. Instead it hung on a bright pink wall surrounded by masks in the artist’s apartment – Suzanne van Damme’s 1925 “Portrait of James
Ensor in his studio” shows how claustrophobically it hemmed in everything else – until 1929, when Ensor had a retrospective in Brussels and made the colour sketch copy of the painting on show here.

Less raw and powerful than the original, this nevertheless conveys both his cynical view of herd-like humanity en masse – he loathed Ostend’s holidaymakers – and the stagy compositional unity with which he holds together the ordinary and the supernatural. That points, of course, straight to surrealism, and this show has a fine range of lurid grotesques by Magritte, Delvaux, Dalí – “Mozart’s Angel”, on the inside of a grand piano lid – and others.

The kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely’s 1988 installation of hats, masks and helmets sticking like impaled heads on metal rods, “L’Avant-Garde”, is a surprise highlight, as are works showing the continuing influence of Ensor on the Cobra artists: Asger Jorn’s unnerving interior with dot-to-dot black cat, red-lipped clock face and mask-like hanged man in “Ainsi on s’ensor” (1962), Pierre Alechinsky’s swirling impasto wonderland in “Alice’s Grows” (1961) and “Dulle Griet au bal du rat mort” (1996).

Like many visionaries, Ensor became a spent force as his rage diminished. There exists some moving film footage, not shown here, of the elderly, white-haired artist strolling along Ostend’s empty beaches in the 1940s: distinguished by now, but still out of his time. This exhibition shows instead his late self-portrait, “Me, my colour and my attributes”: the painter with twiddly beard and bow-tie beaming like a demigod beneath a streaming yellow canopy framed by seashells.

Worse than self-parody, this picture is suicidally displayed not far from a late Picasso whose presence here, among a sea of third-rate Belgian postwar painters in the closing rooms, makes no sense at all, other than to insist by the contrast that Ensor remained at the last a local artist.

I don’t think he was: at the Getty, by contrast, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” towers over everything else and is regarded as an important painting heralding European modernism. But in the catalogue here a photograph shows the work displayed up the Belgian coast at Knokke casino in 1951, with girls in New Deal dresses dancing to a jazz band in front of it. Local or mainstream, eccentric or inspirational, offbeat or pioneering?

Ensor’s entry into art history is just beginning to be taken seriously, and this show is a fascinating staging post.

‘Ensor and the Avant-gardes by the Sea’ is at PMMK Museum of Modern Art, Ostend, until February 25.
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