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

Annual Bulletin 4, 1980-1981

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Author & Subject

James Ensor: Skeletons in the Studio

by Gert Schiff

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4 

The madonna and the crucifix seem to hint at the solace of religion. But too much is known about Ensor's atheism, his firm refusal to believe in an after-life, and the blasphemous undercurrent of his art. (The Consoling Virgin is, according to Paul Haesaerts, not the Madonna but the divinity of Painting as Ensor's inspiration and sole comfort.) (15) Also, the position of the third mask, that grinning mask of a sceptic, precisely between the Madonna and the extinguished candle (an old symbol of death), is too revealing not to be charged with meaning. There remains the imprint of a child's hand. It belongs to Ensor's niece, whom he nicknamed "La Chinoise". She was the seven-year-old daughter of his sister Mitche from her brief and ill-fated marriage with a Chinese antique dealer. Both Mitche and' 'La Chinoise" had lived in close proximity to Ensor after 1892. How fond he was of the child can be gathered from the fairytale-like portrait he painted of her in 1899 (fig. 8). One wonders whether the imprint of her hand meant more to Ensor than a mere reminder of her much-cherished existence. Dipped in blood, it may have served the artist as an apotropaicum, or talisman vested with the strength of the innocent to avert the evil influences of his spectres.

All of Ensor's art is intensely private, and this painting is especially rich in personal content. Incorporating painful memories and anguished presentiments, it marks a watershed in the artist's life. That it holds an equally crucial place in his stylistic development will be shown now.

Generally, one distinguishes three periods in Ensor's painting: the période sombre, c. 1880-1885; the période claire, c. 1885-1900; and the long last period, called by Haesaerts (for no visible reason) the période cristalline. (16) This latter extends from the turn of the century until Ensor's death in 1949. As long as we have no catalogue raisonné allowing further refinements, this construct can be accepted. That there are overlappings between all three periods is a matter of course.

During the période sombre, Ensor derives subject-matter from familiar surroundings, the dunes and the port of Ostend, the bourgeois interiors of his parental home. He portrays those closest to him as well as the poor fisherfolk. His still-lifes are of vegetables, fish and fowl, and household ware in the Flemish tradition. This style has its roots in Courbet's realism (note the excessive use of the palette knife), but it is also open to Impressionist influence. However, to quote Paul Fierens, "Ensor's luminosity incorporates itself in substances, masses and volumes and, far from juggling away relief, creates and affirms it." (17) The colours are dark blues, blacks, purples, and oranges on a ground of muted gold.

Some time after 1885, Ensor's palette brightens and the voyant becomes a visionnaire. He paints increasingly ghostly, and more or less travestied religious subjects. According to M. De Maeyer, (18) the skeleton appears for the first time in The Agonized Christ of 1886 (Brussels, Musée Royal d'Art Moderne); masks, in The Temptation of St Anthony (1887; Kapellen, F. Speth coll.). In several works from the earlier 1880s, the masks and skeletons have been added later, in 1889-1890. The période claire is Ensor's most imaginative one and therefore impossible to reduce to a common denominator. For a number of years, the painterly approach of the preceding period prevails, with all the colours of the spectrum applied in heavy impasto. From c. 1890 on (if not earlier, cf. fig. 3), one observes, first in the still-lifes, a hardening of forms and a uniformly cool light that all but eliminates shadows. It is most markedly "studio light" as opposed to the warmer and more vibrant "apartment light." (19) The colouring is applied more thinly and is not so rich in contrasts; on the other hand it has acquired a nacreous quality. Libby Tannenbaum was the first to observe in these still-lifes a "a new set of objects: bottles, painted crockery and china, metal candlesticks, sea shells, crabs and lobsters, objects all strangely hard and unyielding, and suggesting only the calcine remnants of life which is represented only by the scavenger crustaceans." (20) Both the painterly and the "nacreous" manner coexist and fuse in various ways throughout the 1890s. For a short while between 1890 and 1893, a third and, for once, rather unpleasant manner emerges. It is inspired by hatred, hence grossly caricatural, and reduces the refinement of the two other manners to mere coloured drawing. The principal example is The Good Judges (l891); but also as gentle a subject as The Consoling Virgin is painted in this style. (21) The style comes to the fore again occasionally during Ensor's later years, but without polemical content.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Skeletons in the Studio represents a synthesis of all the achievements and innovations of the période claire. With the obvious exception of The Entry of Christ into Brussels, I can think of no other painting by Ensor that is so rich in detail and yet so clearly arranged. The composition is a feat of dynamic equilibrium within a controlled disorder. In a space that is both flattened and capacious, all the figures and objects are adjusted to a cleverly disguised system of verticals, crossed by the dominant horizontal of the table top. The light is, by definition, studio light. The uniform tonality of walls and floor has the brightness typical of the nacreous manner; everything else is painted in hearty local colours which, only around the window to the left, in the portfolios and, above all, in the robes of the two largest skeletons, attain some of the sonority of the painterly manner. In some of the still-life objects as well as in the view from the window, the folkloristic gaudiness of the colouring and the naive directness of the drawing point forward to the poster style of certain later works. But our painting has none of their stridency and lack of structure. Dynamic equilibrium prevails also between its dark symbolism and high-keyed visual appearance. One could almost say that in this painting, the artist had for the last time attained the height of his powers. Rarely equalled in his career, it contains the whole Ensor.

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