National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 4, 1980-1981

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James Ensor: Skeletons in the Studio

by Gert Schiff

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4 

In our painting he is not at home, and the spectres have taken advantage of his absence. A tall skeleton clad in a magnificent crimson robe and boots squats in the bottom left corner, his bony hand clasping his left knee. A herring dangles from his clenched teeth; another herring drops between his feet as if "excreted." His female companion, in a richly embroidered kimono and white shoes, rests on her elbows, likewise with a herring between her teeth. Three onions also seem part of their meal. Opposite the couple, a shape that could be a hybrid between bird - and fish-skull, or else a human skull beaten to a pulp, peeps out from underneath the cushion; his fingertips and the point of a knife indicate that he, too, is endowed with a "body." The same can be said about the skull behind the green portfolio; it belongs to a female, for part of her pleated pink skirt sticks out. The others seem to possess no more than the above-mentioned rudimentary appendages. A spectre with a blue-and-white striped scarf gazes spitefully into the face of the figure in the kimono. A skull with a bedsheet as an appendage has put himself to rest behind the portfolio with the tom cover. The viewer could easily overlook a skull which, to the extreme left above the crimson-clad protagonist, materializes out of the wall. Nor would he, at first glimpse, detect another one which, high on top of the suitcase, bites into the tail of a white cat. "Insatiable hunger is a peculiarity of Ensor's skeletons and adds a sense of the pathetic and the futile to their cruelties." (7) Obviously, these spectres have exhausted themselves in a ferocious battle from which the red one and his spouse have emerged victorious. They are all blood-stained, and so is the knife by the side of the victress. She has a gaping wound in her forehead. The defeated ones look around with bug-eyed malevolence. The bone of contention was, of course, the herrings.

Anyone familiar with Ensor's private symbolism will know immediately what this means. On the grounds of the assonance between "hareng-saur" and "art Ensor", the painter, in one of his more playful moods, made the herring the private symbol of his art. In a painting of 1892, The Consoling Virgin, (8) a herring lies on the floor among Ensor's brushes while he pays homage to an apparition of the Virgin whose icon he has just painted. In Dangerous Cooks (1896), (9) a satire on his critics, the artist depicts, among others, Octave Maus, the founder of the artists' association "Les XX", whose jury repeatedly refused Ensor's works. He carries on a plate a herring whose head has been replaced by Ensor's own. Of direct bearing in our painting is Skeletons Fighting for a Smoked Herring, (1891; fig. 7). Here, the two skeletons represent two critics who, fighting over Ensor's art, literally tear it apart, as each wants to be the one who has done him in. (10)

Their "dispute" has been re-enacted by the skeletons in our painting. The inscription "Mort aux Conformes" further corroborates their identity with those critics who are unable to accept a non-conformist art such as Ensor's. This malediction expresses the artist's hatred of his critics' ignorance and meanness. The picture includes more evidence of Ensor's vulnerability. As I have pointed out elswhere, (11) the Pierrot mask represents Ensor's alter ego, as the artist himself would dress up frequently as a Pierrot in comedies improvised together with Ernest Rousseau. In most of his paintings, the Pierrot is an amused and sometimes mischievous, but always detached observer of the life around him. Here, however, a few splotches of red have transformed his ironic face into a mask of sorrow, spitting blood and shedding bloody tears. Thus, the mask bears witness to the lasting wound Ensor received at the hands of his critics.

But our painting was painted in 1900, and all biographers agree that in Ensor's career the turn of the century marked a decisive change for the better. Already about 1888, the best of the young Belgian writers, Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, Eeckhoud and, above all, Eugène Demolder, had become his abettors and allies in his struggle for recognition. In 1898-1899; at the instigation of Demolder, the Paris review La Plume organized an Ensor retrospective, followed by a special issue dedicated to his art. This meant almost a breakthrough; from then on, sales mounted slowly but steadily. Even more slowly, the hostilities of official art criticism turned into grudging recognition of Ensor's talent. Four years later, King Leopold made him a knight of his order. Why, then, is our painting expressive not of renewed confidence but of the stubborn and painful presence of past sorrows?

The answer is that it took Ensor much longer to purge his soul of all the rejections and humiliations of his youthful career; the best of his strength dissipated in the process. Certainly, it was hard to forget facts such as the attitude of "Les XX" who, in 1889, not only refused to exhibit his Entry of Christ into Brussels but put his expulsion to the vote; Ensor maintained his membership thanks to one single vote, his own. Even unwanted, he needed "Les XX" as the only forum to show and promote his art. Think, too, of the depth of despair which, in 1893, made him decide to sell the whole contents of his studio for a give-away price - in spite of his and his friends' efforts, the sale did not even materialize! Add to this the constant harassment of his mother and aunt who wanted him to do something useful and did not attach the slightest value to his painting. All this had undermined Ensor's resistance. He had become subject to depression and self-doubt and could cry bitterly at his misfortunes, like Pierrot, his alter ego. Thus he reacted to the unexpected praise of former detractors not with joy but with suspicion, always expecting new incomprehension and meanness. (12) During his darkest years, he had taken to the habit of somewhat inadequately likening his sufferings to the Passion of Christ. (13) As late as 1923-1924, when he had long been universally admired and honoured, Ensor was once more overcome by this mood of self-pity and painted himself as Christ Carrying the Cross. (14) However, precisely from 1900 onwards, Ensor's tragedy was further aggravated by the incontrovertible fact that in the same measure as his worldly circumstances improved, his creative force dwindled. The rhythm of his production slowed down and, occasional masterpieces notwithstanding, his technique slackened and his invention degenerated into sad self-repetition, if not self-parody. Seen in this light, it appears as if Skeletons in the Studio reveals not only the persistence of past sorrows but even a premonition of future ones. What, the painter may have asked himself, if his enemies really had crushed his creativity between their teeth, so that he would never again attain his former excellence? Then, the battle of the skeletons would have been the battle of attrition of his art. Side by side with Pierrot, the terrified Oriental mask may express this fear.

Are there any symbols of hope in the picture?

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