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

Article en français

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In a painting recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, (1) Ensor depicts a corner of his studio (fig. I). Through a window in the wall to the left, one catches a glimpse of Ostend's Van Iseghemlaan, quite as Ensor depicted it in a masterly drawing (fig. 2; the nunnery with the two stepped gables was pulled down in the 1920s).

Ensor's studio was situated in the fifth-floor attic of his family's house at the corner of Van Iseghemlaan and Vlaanderenstraat. In actuality, he had to stretch out his head if he wanted to look down upon those streets through one of the small windows. (2) On the window-sill, one sees a violin and a basket; underneath, a green portfolio with drawings. In order to flatten the space, Ensor widens the angle between left and rear walls and blurs their intersection. Focal point of the rear wall is a typical Ensorian still-life on an Empire-style console table. The horizontal alignment of objects on a table parallel to the picture plane follows the pattern of many earlier still-lifes (see fig. 3). The china and other porcelain, the copper plate, the conch shell, the candlestick, and the grinning mask occur in several other paintings; only the polychrome statuette of Madonna and Child in Nevers faience is new. Above this still-life, various objects are hung in three vertical rows. These include to the left, the mask of a white faced Pierrot, a scrap of paper inscribed "Mort aux Conformes" (Death to Conformists), and a dipper; in the middle, an Eastern mask with an expression of terror, and a coffee pot; to the right, attached to the frame of a blind window, another dipper with a smaller coffee pot by its side and, further down, a small crucifix. Finally, the pink imprint of a child's hand (in line with the Pierrot mask and the inscription) should be mentioned. Underneath the console table, an assortment of jugs, vases, and pots are half-hidden behind a second portfolio with a cover of tom blue velvet, and a large green majolica jug with a floral pattern. A palette leans against an adjacent cupboard whose wings are painted with red-and-blue birds and flowers in a pseudo-Japanese style. On top of the cupboard, books, cigar boxes, a suitcase, and other items are deposited. A chair with a coffee mill on its seat stands in front of the cupboard. Scattered over the floor are an embroidered cushion, a palette with two brushes and colours that may still be wet from Ensor's preceding working session, an open book with its cover up, a shell, and a multicoloured jug.

This peaceful studio has been the battlefield of spectres: fully dressed skeletons, and skulls with curious appendages, rags, coloured scarfs, shreds of bedsheets in lieu of bodies, lie about, recovering from their fights.

Ensor is as much a painter of skeletons as of masks. In his mother's souvenir shop, masks were. offered for sale during Carnival along with the usual assortment of beach articles, sea shells, ships in bottles, and dried sea plants. Even today the visitor will find a variety of those masks in the shop as well as in Ensor's salon, now both part of his Museum; it is possible to identify certain of these masks as characters in some of his best-known paintings. Skeletons also were among the requisites of the Ostend Carnival and of the charades performed by Ensor and his friend, young Ernest Rousseau. They posed for the photographer in the dunes as cannibals, gnawing away on human bones, or fighting duels with parts of skeletons which they might have dug out in situ. For in 1601-1604, a Spanish siege of Ostend had led to casualties among the Dutch that exceeded 130,000, and remains were still being uncovered well into the twentieth century: "human skeletons found on the beaches and in the town itself became as familiar as the driftwood and shells which lie partially buried in sand." (3) This accounts for Ensor's frequent use of skeletons in his paintings.

A photograph of the artist in his studio, as well as the painting Skeleton Painter in his Studio (both c. 1896-1900; figs. 4 and 5), prove that skulls did indeed belong to his studio inventory. In fig. 5 he reveals that occasionally these skulls could assume a life of their own, gnawing at his tousled brushes, or casting malignant glances at him out of new-grown bug-eyes. To paraphrase a line from "Shadows", a prose poem by Ensor's favorite writer, Edgar Allan Poe: The skulls seem "to take such interest in (his) merriment as the dead may haply take in the merriment of those who are about to die." The eyes are the first signs of the skulls' transformation from inanimate studio props into spectres. However, in order to attain full strength they need a body, complete with clothes. The appendages of the skulls in Skeletons in the Studio seem to represent a rudimentary stage in the process of their attainment of corporeality. Ensor's masks also shift back and forth between different modes of existence. Originally mere carnival trappings, they come to life as lurking demons, or as real people whose caricatural features reflect their moral ugliness. (4) The masks are projections of Ensor's misanthropy and feelings of persecution. His skulls and skeletons are, apart from their universal significance as images of death, quite often portrayals of his favorite enemies - his critics. From his early years on, Ensor was constantly aware of his own mortality. As he often observed, "At twenty our bodies start to go to pieces. We were built to go downhill and not to climb." (5) In this spirit, the twenty-eight-year-old Ensor etched My Portrait in 1960 (1888; fig. 6); more than once, he portrayed himself as a Skeleton Painter. (6)

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