In the Belgium of the 1880s and 1890s the innovative James Ensor was not well understood by his contemporaries. Even today his brilliant, visionary vision remains unclassifiable; he is seen as a precursor of modern art. A realist at first, he soon began to evoke mystery and interiority in dark bourgeois interiors, experimenting with painting materials and colour. From 1883 on, his exuberant creativity took a new turn, interweaving reality, the fantastic, and irony. Masks and skeletons emerged as key motifs. Feeling misunderstood and isolated, Ensor used ridicule and caricature to attack established society. His original contribution was to introduce a carnavalesque and macabre iconography that signalled an expressionism that was ahead of its time. A number of examples illustrate his occasionally contradictionary links with his contemporaries.