Portrait d'Augusta Boogaerts, 1939, oil on panel, 22 x 16 cmJames Ensor, Portrait d’Augusta Boogaerts, 1939, Oil on panel, 22 x 16 cm

Misreading pleases me almost as much as mishearing. The read or heard phrase arrives into consciousness seeming to belong to someone else, but then converts into one’s own when the mistake is realized – an idiocy dividend. I decided to write here about James Ensor’s portrait of his companion Augusta Boogaerts, having seen it in a book. I was eager to spend time thinking about this strange and prickly artist but had no thoughts beyond loving his work. The wait for insight withdrew into my mental background while I read unrelated articles and moved through the world, trolling subconsciously for ideas. In a book review describing Nietzsche’s thoughts on revelation I read “flesh of light” as a description of ecstatic understanding. Perfect for the Ensor text! Oops, no  – it was “flash of light.” But, yes – the rosy surround of Ensor’s portrait subject is the color of radiant flesh. Augusta and her tormentors emerge from the same corporeal hue in which illumination and inflammation mingle to make a picture.

Augusta is conjured within a charged atmosphere of possibility and menace. Scrubbed out suggestions of figures float above her while a mixed group of painters, suitors and monsters stroke, threaten and offer gifts. Ensor’s goons are focused on the impassive blond while her blue eyes stare off-frame, with no acknowledgement of the attentions she is receiving. And indeed the surrounding characters are rendered in a different, more schematically cartoonish register. We could understand these freaks as projections of Boogaerts’ inner life, but Ensor’s signature is painted amongst them with the same thick red line he uses to depict their parallel reality. The five letters of his name are echoed with mutant variations in the flanking crowd to spell a story of marks becoming thoughts under Ensor’s signature guidance. The letters O, N and E are on a weathervane missing the S on its southern spoke. But another S shows up on the other side of the canvas on a painter’s palette, and again snaking a connection between the noses of two clownish demons. Daubs of green, yellow and blue join the unctuous chorus of taunts and flattery. A toothless schmoo-painter applies paint to a flower pinned to Augusta’s dress while an angry bald man on the other side strokes her shoulder.

Portrait of Augusta Boogaerts, 1939, asserts a tangle of two subjectivities – Boogaerts’ self-possessed otherness within Ensor’s noisy “flesh of light.” The painting is a force-field of conflicting languages and subjects – civility and barbarous imagination, the desire to communicate and a possibility that no connection is possible. Augusta maintains an expressionless composure surrounded by the conceivably harmless threat of James’ incomprehensible ambivalence. Maybe the reputedly misogynist James Ensor has found a weird way to say “I’m sorry.”

Proust's Doodle, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 72x60David Humphrey, Proust’s Doodle, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches