Skeletons and Masks: Ensor at MoMA

Light, pure colors are floating, happy things until they are paradoxically combined with death. Then the light intense red become hysterical as it floats about carpets, drapes and fruit. Belgian painter James Ensor‘s works is many things, but above all he is hard to classify. Rubens, Van Gogh, William Blake, Breughel, el Dio de los Muertos, William Hogarth, Carnival and its masks…

I was swimming it an otherworldly sea of comparisons when I went to see the exhibition at MoMA yesterday. Here are some of them:

Here he poses as the Old Master painter Rubens, in a flowered and plumed hat, beginning the process of his self-fashioning, in which he gradually becomes a tormented artist plagued by thoughts of death.

Early works; Ensor’s The Drinker’s next to Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters

In these later works, both artists have shifted to pure pigment in bright, crowded interiors. Ensor has added himself as a skeleton in The Skeleton Painter.

The Fireworks doesn’t share the Biblical theme that some of Ensor’s harder to find images do with Blake, but it does share a simplicity of composition that is elemental and wondrous.
Although its hard to see the details here, Ensor’s Baths at Ostend is swarming with cavorting tiny figures rather like earlier Flemish painter Breughel’s Maypole Dance, which also takes a large, contemporary social scene as his subject before imbuing it with meaning.

You might have noticed, Ensor likes his skeletons up walking and talking or here, Skeletons Warming Themselves by the Fire. This sort of celebration of death among the living reminds me of El Dio de los Muertos both in the skeletons and the colors.

The irony of the former scene descends to pure satire in Ensor’s The Banquet of the Starving. Although the British artist William Hogarth’s The Humours of an Election was lampooning a more specific occasion, the two shared a minute dedication to attacking social and political systems.

And everywhere in Ensor, along with skeletons, you find masks. A theme throughout his life, inspired by the novelty store he lived above his whole life, here the masked people crowd around Death in Masks Confronting Death. Much good may it do them.

On through September 21 at MoMA, check it out and see what connections you can dream up.

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