Happy Days Tidbit #11 - James Ensor

by Laurent Graff

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Happy Days Tidbit #11 - James Ensor

Unread postby Liz » Tue Nov 28, 2006 11:12 am

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James Ensor is touched upon briefly on page 62 in reference to the Christmas Eve party:

With Mireille on my arm, I escort my date to the dining hall, where a good number of the residents have already gathered. It’s a portrait gallery à la James Ensor, a riot of rouge, a permanent-wave contest, a fashion show of out-of-fashion styles on centenarian models. Sitting around the tables, the elderly revelers strike dignified poses in their party clothes for some hypothetical jury.


James Ensor, a draftsman and Symbolist painter of the 19th Century, is considered a precursor to Surrealism and Expressionism.

Symbolism was a late nineteenth century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts.
Rimbaud has been associated with Symbolist poetry.

French Symbolism was in large part a reaction against the Naturalism and Realism movements. These movements invited a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams and the path to Symbolism. Symbolists believed that art should aim to capture more absolute truths which could only be accessed by indirect methods. Thus, they wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning.

The Symbolist painters used mythology and dream imagery for a visual language of the soul, seeking evocative paintings that brought to mind a static world of silence. The symbols used in Symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references--more a philosophy than an actual style of art.

Born in Ostend on April 13, 1860, to a Belgian mother and an English father, James Ensor studied at the Brussels Academy in 1877-79, then returned to his native town, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1883, he joined Les XX (the Twenty), whose goal was to promote new artistic developments throughout Europe. They provided him with the only opportunity he could find to exhibit his work. Although Ensor was considered the group’s leader and founder, he had sharp differences of opinion with other group members. He was asked several times to withdraw his work from the society’s exhibitions, and there was even at one time a move to expel him from its ranks.

Ensor had a fondness for the masks. Maybe it had to do with his family. They were shop keepers who sold souvenirs, curiosities, exotic objects and toys. At carnival-time, they also sold masks.

Ensor’s first mask painting dates from as early as 1879, but the theme had its greatest importance for him from the mid 1880’s onwards. This was also the time at which there was a decisive change in his palette. From being rather dark, his paintings now, under the influence of French Impressionism, became flooded with light. And in response to the French pointillist style, he used palette knives, spatulas, and both ends of his brush to put down patches of colors with expressive freedom. Below I will touch on three of his mask paintings.

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Self-portrait with Masks (1899) offers an introduction into how to read Ensor’s work. The painter himself appears in the center of the composition, wearing a carnival hat adorned with a feather. This portrait is a paraphrase of a well-known self-portrait by Rubens. The rest of the picture is crowded with masks. All but one or two of these masks appear to ignore his presence among them. The other two stare at him mindlessly. The apparent meaning behind this painting is related to Ruben’s great worldly success. Ensor presents himself as a poor parody of Rubens’s greatness, a carnival-king of painters. Around him crowd the representatives of ordinary bourgeois society. With these, the mask has become the face; the disguise for spiritual ugliness is itself more hideous than reality could ever be. The crowded airlessness of the composition seems to express Ensor’s own feeling of claustrophobia. It is to be found in many of his compositions.

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Two other mask paintings can be taken in conjunction with the Self-portrait. One is the Old Woman with Masks (1889). This is said to have begun as a commissioned portrait (almost the only commission of its kind given to Ensor during this period). The sitter rejected the painting as too ugly, whereupon Ensor took it back, emphasized the ugliness even further, and added the masks. It is thought by Edward Lucie-Smith that “we are intended to see the living face and the masks as equivalents. The suggestion is that the old woman is in the process of turning into the hollow mask she already resembles. Yet there is also a feeling of compassion. Ensor is not blind to the pathos of age, or to the still keener pathos of our hopeless attempts to resist it.”

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The third mask painting is the most ambitious Ensor ever painted—The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1889). This was the painting that led to his near expulsion from Les XX (he was saved by one vote—his own). The implication behind the picture is that if Christ were to return for the second coming that the Belgians would treat him as he was treated in Jerusalem. The banner at the top of the painting—LONG LIVE SOCIALISM!—adds a fierce touch of political irony.

Ensor's society is a mob, threatening to trample the viewer--a crude, ugly, chaotic, dehumanized sea of masks, frauds, clowns, and caricatures. Public, historical, and allegorical figures along with the artist's family and friends made up the crowd. The haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait: mostly ignored, a precarious, isolated visionary amidst the herdlike masses of modern society. Ensor's Christ functioned as a political spokesman for the poor and oppressed--a humble leader of the true religion, in opposition to the atheist social reformer Emile Littré, shown in bishop's garb holding a drum major's baton leading on the eager, mindless crowd. It is said that for a time during his career he really identified with Christ, feeling his suffering as an obscure artist with unkind critics paralleling Christ's suffering.

After rejection by Les XX, the artists' association that Ensor had helped to found, the painting was not exhibited publicly until 1929. Ensor kept The Entry of Christ into Brussels with him throughout his life, and as with many of his paintings, he made a number of alterations to it. An etched version of the subject from 1898 shows the banners and posters more clearly. Corporate and political advertising banners are given great prominence. Slogans for the socialist party and Colman's mustard are also included. This painting illustrates a facet of Ensor’s art which has often been commented upon: its spatial discontinuity, which in this case gives a feelilng of the uncontrollagle movement of a vast crowd. The crowd itself is one of Ensor’s characteristic images—one of the ways he projects his feeling of alienation.

The Entry of Christ into Brussels is currently on display at The Getty Center Los Angeles.

It has been said that the work which Ensor was producing during his most intense and original period should be regarded as the reflection of a psychosis. Dominant are images of panic, such as the swarming crowd which appears in his etching The Cathedral, and images of alienation—masks, skeletons and phantoms. All these images serve to suggest that the artist is moving through a world which lacks some dimension of reality, and in which all other individuals appear as ghosts.

In the mid-1880s, Ensor suffered from an ulcer and from a personal crisis. His family forbade him to marry the woman he loved. He returned to painting religious subjects and plunged to the depths of despair when he decided to sell the contents of his studio in the 1890s.

After the turn of the century, Ensor finally won acclaim and respectability. He was knighted by King Albert and given the title of Baron. The 1908 publication of a book about his life and works confirmed his standing and reputation. In later years, he wrote music, designed sets for ballets, and continued to paint until his death at eighty-nine.

Also interesting to note is that the European contemporary who had the greatest kinship with Ensor was undoubtedly the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (The Cry). If you will remember from one of my earlier tidbits Laurent Graff referred to Munch in his commentary on Le Cri (The Cry), his most recent novel. An excerpt from that commentary:


True icon, the chief of work of Edvard Munch is universally known. It intrigues, it causes, it worries, it disturbs. What does one see? A man, the open mouth, closes the ears of the two hands, under an apocalyptic sky color blood. Does it hear a terrifying cry and it is protected some? Or is this him which pushes this formidable howl of horror? This cry is it interior or external? By looking at painting, one cannot prevent oneself from feeling concerned, implied, threatened, taken in the storm of the table. This cry touches us all, speaks to us about our destiny.

And it would only be fitting to show James Ensor’s gravestone:

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Sources:

http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/art ... ?maker=253

http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/art/ensor.html

Symbolist Art, Edward Lucie-Smith, 1972

Wikipedia
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Nov 28, 2006 11:18 am

“we are intended to see the living face and the masks as equivalents. The suggestion is that the old woman is in the process of turning into the hollow mask she already resembles. Yet there is also a feeling of compassion. Ensor is not blind to the pathos of age, or to the still keener pathos of our hopeless attempts to resist it.”


This observation certainly fits with the story in Happy Days. Very nice tidbit, Liz. There are no throwaway references in this book!
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Unread postby Parlez » Tue Nov 28, 2006 12:50 pm

:bounce: This is a great tidbit!! I had no idea we would be
mining such rich veins of art and psychology in the discussion
of such a seemingly simple book!! I love this man's artwork!!
And, how timely ~ I've been having dreams that will benefit
from an exploration of this school of painting. Who knew?!?
THANKS for the report!
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Unread postby gemini » Tue Nov 28, 2006 1:13 pm

I dont know if it is just me or if his life seems rather sad
and, at least the paintings here seem to reflect it.
His family preventing him from marrying the girl he loved
and from what we read here, I didn't see anything about him
ever marrying. Is Laurant attracted to people watching life?
Not that I am saying not marrying alone means your life is
not full. It is just that he seems to have refused to marry
another. The two quotes below don't seem to be describing a
happy person, even though he does seem to be more accepted
and at peace with himself in his later years.

It is said that for a time during his career he really
identified with Christ, feeling his suffering as an obscure
artist with unkind critics paralleling Christ's suffering.


The crowd itself is one of Ensor’s characteristic images
—one of the ways he projects his feeling of alienation.
"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." Will Rogers

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Unread postby Liz » Tue Nov 28, 2006 1:37 pm

Parlez, you just never know what you are going to learn here. :-O

gemini wrote:Is Laurant attracted to people watching life?

Interesting observation, as it were, Gemini. Hold onto that thought and bring it up again during the discussion.

And DITHOT, I was pretty amazed to discover some of the things I did about Ensor. I'm beginning to think that there is more to this little book than meets the eye.
You can't judge a book by its cover.

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Nov 28, 2006 1:59 pm

I agree, Liz. There are quite a few mentions in the book that are more than casual references methinks!
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -

Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby suec » Tue Nov 28, 2006 2:09 pm

Yes, it does seem to be extremely rich. I had missed this reference, but it does act as a reminder to me to pay more more attention because so often they do carry another layer of meaning. Very interesting!
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Unread postby Boo-Radley » Tue Nov 28, 2006 3:29 pm

Thank you for that, so very interesting Lizbaba. I like Ensor's paintings, I've always been drawn to surrealist painter's like Dali, and I can seen how Ensor's style would be seen as a precursor. Also the first thing I thought of when I looked at the first portrait was Munch's The Cry, Ensor's work is very evocative as well. Now that I've seen the some of his paintings, the description of the party scene in Happy Days, is even more stark and melancholic. When I was reading Happy Days I kept thinking constantly that the days described in the book, contrary to the intentions of the Nursing home's administration, were anything but happy.

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Unread postby Raven » Tue Nov 28, 2006 4:11 pm

Thanks Liz,

click here for a few works of Ensor's for sale at Christies.

http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/sear ... ames+Ensor

can anyone tell me how many euros = dollars?
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Unread postby Charlene » Tue Nov 28, 2006 5:04 pm

I know this....the sea of faces....what a way with words he has referencing this artist...because it is what I see on those times I have had to go into the dining hall and search for my parents at the retirement village...it is nigh on impossible to find them. You just see this sea of grey heads on top of a swirl of colors around round tables for 7...it is like a painting and in order to find who you are looking for , you must stop and focus on each face to see their individuality.

Reading this book (I'm on my 2nd reading) is just like being in my parent's place. Uncany.

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Unread postby fansmom » Tue Nov 28, 2006 5:40 pm

Raven wrote:can anyone tell me how many euros = dollars?


1000 euros = $1320.07 US dollars = 676.14 UK pounds = 1492.21 Canadian dollars = 1684.02 Australian dollars

Did I miss anyone? Can we all now bid comfortably? :lol:

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Unread postby Boo-Radley » Tue Nov 28, 2006 5:40 pm

Raven wrote:Thanks Liz,

click here for a few works of Ensor's for sale at Christies.

http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/sear ... ames+Ensor

can anyone tell me how many euros = dollars?



This site will help Raven http://www.xe.com/ucc/convert.cgi

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Unread postby Bix » Tue Nov 28, 2006 5:42 pm

I have to add my thanks for this one, Liz. As DITHOT said, there are no throwaway phrases here. I had read right over the words "a la James Ensor" because I was not familiar with the artist and this tidbit opened up a whole new world of vision for me! It adds so very much to that sentence, to that scene in the book, to have this information. (I love the Old Woman with Masks especially. I can see why she wouldn't have been happy with the finished commissioned portrait - too true to life altogether!) Very interesting.
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Unread postby gemini » Tue Nov 28, 2006 6:37 pm

suec wrote:Yes, it does seem to be extremely rich. I had missed this reference, but it does act as a reminder to me to pay more more attention because so often they do carry another layer of meaning. Very interesting!


Yes, Since reading some of these tidbits I think reading the book once more will help me before we
get into the discussion. I think there are probably more things with hidden meaning that I missed the
first time.
"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." Will Rogers



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Unread postby Depputante » Tue Nov 28, 2006 7:34 pm

Nice Tidbit! :cool: I imagine that the second portrait, with the guy and all the reddish painting, is what he feels like. I thought the reference was about how the ballroom LOOKED like, and he was looking AT the ballroom, not how HE felt in it!
“The scariest enemy is from within. Allowing yourself to be limited and conform to what you're expected to conform to.”~JD


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