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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ensor's Appalling Parade

Sanford Schwartz had a good article on James Ensor in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, titled "The Mysteries of Ensor." I'd seen a few examples of Ensor's work before -- including a couple of his skeleton pictures, like "Skeletons Warming Themselves" and "Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring" (both reproduced below), which offer riffs on the medieval "Dance of Death" sequences that showed Death leading people from all walks of life into the grave. I'd come to the "Dance of Death" out of an interest in comics -- they're an early Western use of images deployed in sequence; probably the most famous of these sequences was done by Holbein the Younger -- several of those images are linked on this page from a site organized around the theme of Death in Art. Ensor got himself into the death game with his etching "My Portrait in 1960" (he was born in 1860):
But Ensor's work wasn't restricted to turning the "Dance of Death" into morbid comedy. Schwartz describes Ensor's work further:

Ensor is... known, of course, for prying open, as it were, the lid of propriety on the box that holds our most impish and irregular thoughts. His best-known images present a kind of nonstop Mardi Gras, where goblins peer from behind furniture or swarm around us as we sleep, skeletons in top hats and overcoats try to warm themselves near a stove, and Satan's hairy-tailed helpers drop down from above to round up various locals. Jurists, prelates, the Belgian king, military men, and officials of every sort (some of whom we learn are members of the art establishment) turn up as ogres. In the print Doctrinaire Nourishment, these upholders of society's moral values squat on a ledge and defecate (each stream reflecting the relative heft of the man's buttocks) into the open mouths of the horde waiting below.

In other words, Ensor's work is right up my alley, and I'm surprised it's taken me this long to really know something about him. Comical, grosteque, scatalogical, proto-surrealist: what's not to love? Reading the article sent me on a Google Image Search to dig up as many hi-res versions of his work as I could -- I've culled my favorites below. Click on them for larger versions.

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