The Flemish coastal resort of Ostend served as the the backdrop for a unique art project recently

Belgian Artist, Athos Burez has created a contemporary interpretation of James Ensor’s ‘The Baths at Ostend’

James Ensor Recomposed Copyright - ©Athos Burez 1

From 27th October 2020, the Flemish photographer and artist Athos Burez will exhibit his contemporary interpretation on the ‘The Baths at Ostend’ by James Ensor. The social criticism in James Ensor’s portrayed in this iconic masterpiece is more relevant and topical than ever, and the modern artist has now added his vision of today’s world, in a piece of work inspired by the past. Visit Ostend and VISITFLANDERS are also celebrating the opening of the recently renovated Ensor House with this special initiative, as well as creating a great opportunity to highlight the link between this Flemish Master and the city of Ostend.

Ensor painted ‘The Baths at Ostend’ in 1890. This brilliant sketch depicts a scene featuring bathers in the Flemish seaside resort of Ostend, at the turn of the 19th century. It would seem that not much has changed in the last 130 years, which makes the picture all the more remarkable. People from all walks of life in our society still flock to the beach on sunny summer days and bathers still visit to see, and be seen. At the same time, everyone appears socially equal, when dressed only in swimwear!

Ensor – the non-conformist.

Ensor’s iconoclastic paintings were fiercely critical of society, alluding to and seeking to challenge society’s “sacred cows”. Controversy and conflict are all themes that Ensor depicted in his work and yet, a century later, many of these taboo’s still exist, to an extent. For that reason, Visit Ostend and VISITFLANDERS thought that there was no better time to commission a special contemporary interpretation of this notable painting by Ensor. Acclaimed artist and photographer, Athos Burez was asked to create a modern-day interpretation of the ‘The Bathers of Ostend’. The new painting is entitled “James Ensor Recomposed”.

Translating the past to modern society

Flanders has always been a hotbed of creativity, both now and in times gone by. Peter De Wilde, CEO of VISITFLANDERS, thinks that our society should do more than solely focus on this amazing past. “Our task is to draw on the past for inspiration, using it in a constructive way that benefits today’s society. We can do this by giving contemporary artists a platform for translating issues that were addressed in yesterday’s art, into modern-day concerns.”

The photographers: from character to director

One of the many characters in Ensor’s painting is the photographer, who is standing on the roof of a beach cabin. In all likelihood, Ensor was referring to the photos and post cards that portrayed beachgoers. “I’m very honoured to be the photographer this time around”, said Athos Burez. “I love Ensor’s subtle blend of humour and social criticism. It is never offensive. Instead it encourages reflection. Like Ensor, I took a critical look at the beach of Ostend to create a snapshot of today’s society.

Even though some of the themes in Ensor’s work are still very relevant today, society has changed a lot since then, as you can tell in the contemporary artwork. Themes such as pollution, migration and even the use of face coverings are in the work. The beachgoers are also more colourful and diverse. Athos Burez: “I went in search of modern-day parallels. Like Ensor, I’m into humour and self-reflection and stereotypes are a good place to start. It is funny to see how certain clichés have not changed after 130 years and how new ones were added. Just think of people who come to the beach for the day, bringing a picnic in their cooler. During the shoot I realised that the people of Ostend have no problem whatsoever with self-deprecation. It’s clear that Ensor’s spirit is still very much alive and kicking in this seaside resort.

Ensor still gets people moving

Ensor’s work is a colourful cornucopia of characters, which meant that Burez had to find 180 extras for his new work. Hundreds of enthusiastic candidates answered the call to be a model in the new ‘The Baths at Ostend’. “Seeing so many locals and Ensor fans sign up as extras for this project was amazing”, says Bart Tommelein, Ostend’s mayor. “Ensor connects people of all ages and is part of our cultural identity.”

Welcome to the renovated James Ensor House

Athos Burez’s contemporary interpretation of ‘The Baths at Ostend’ will be exhibited from 27th October 2020 alongside the print that Ensor made of his painting in 1899, giving visitors the opportunity to admire both works. Both pieces of art will be exhibited in James Ensor House, the house where the artist lived and worked until his death in 1949. Many of his now priceless artworks were created here. The house was recently restored to its former glory with the support of VISITFLANDERS and has reopened as a museum about the artist’s life and work.

The exhibition is at James Ensor House, 8400 Ostend and runs from 17/10/20 until 10/01/21 (the loan can be extended)

The making of the artwork

Creating this artwork proved quite challenging. Over the course of two days, 180 extras were photographed on the beach at Ostend, while respecting all COVID-19 safety measures. Priority was given to couples and families that could stand close together. The extras were divided into colours and time slots during the shoots to minimise contact. Afterwards, all of the scenes were photoshopped to create one big beach scene, populated by a colourful band of beachgoers.

About the photographer, Athos Burez

Athos Burez’s stylised photos has be critically described as ‘goofy beauty’. They strike the right balance between humour, beauty and cool. His playful, colourful and often dramatic visual language was the main reason for his commission.

Athos Burez (b. 1987, Ronse) studied visual arts at St. Lucas Gent and photography at KASK in Ghent. Burez’s own style is eminently recognisable in his commissions and his own free work. He devises narrative images and works with staged scenes, creating a mix of portraits, still-lifes and landscapes, often with a surreal twist.

This is not the first time that Burez has dedicated a work to a Flemish Master. In 2018, the artist exhibited 80 pictures and installations in the MAS in Antwerp, which drew on the baroque cultural legacy of Peter Paul Rubens for inspiration. The exhibition was part of the city festival ‘Antwerp Baroque 2018. Rubens inspires’.

He has also portrayed several contemporary Flemish Masters such as Rinus van de Velde (painter) and Dries Van Noten (fashion designer).

About Ostend, the city of James Ensor

James Ensor was born and raised in Ostend. In addition to being his home, the city by the sea was also the source of his inspiration. The city has chosen to focus on its most famous inhabitant with various initiatives. More information:

About Ensor in Flanders

During his impressive, 70-year career, James Ensor painted over 850 paintings. Many of these masterpieces have since found their way into the collections of various Flemish museums. Besides Ostend, his works are exhibited in Brussels, Antwerp. A full list of museums with works by Ensor can be found here


As an official organisation of the Government of Flanders, VISITFLANDERS promotes domestic and international tourism in Flanders. Sustainable development is a priority in everything we do. The emphasis is on a higher economic return and more employment, in addition to balancing the interests of local population, visitors and business owners while always respecting the destination’s soul.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s