Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Fighting Skeletons of James Ensor

Fighting Skeletons of James Ensor
James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Halloween Special

Fighting Skeletons of James Ensor

We can’t let Halloween pass by without mention of the late Victorian avante-garde painter James Ensor. Often likened to Munch is his ability to convey the miseries of human experience, while often macabre his paintings are also colourfully carnivalesque.

Where Munch presents us with vast vacuums of bleak desperation, Ensor presents us with black comedies featuring sublimely ridiculous characters (such as these two skeletons) doing equally silly things. He paints a picture that revels in the absurdity of life, preferring to use his brand of dark humour to extol the hysteria of being alive while at the same time commenting on its pain, its fragility, and its temporal nature.

James Ensor: Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring James Ensor Fighting Skeletons of James Ensor

James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

In this particular painting, Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring (1891), Ensor is the herring, and he is being ripped apart by art critics after receiving negative responses to his work. The yellowed jaws of the two critics (one still wearing a rather ostentatious hat and the other with a few comical wisps of hair still attached) are firmly clamped onto the poor little fish as they pull and fight over it. The image is both grotesque and hilarious, leaving us in no doubt as to what Ensor thought about their criticisms! It makes me wonder – does the critic make the painting or does the painting make the critic? Now there’s a pickled herring to fight over!


Ensor’s psychological approach was unusual among his peers. He tended to look inwards – much like Munch – and what we see is an impressionistic and subjective interpretation of his interior landscape. His inner thoughts were colourful, perhaps because when he was growing up his mother had a souvenir shop and he was able to surround himself with curiosities from a young age. His inner thoughts however also leaned toward the darker side of life: he seemed fascinated by the irrationality of human behaviour, but also the mean curiosity with which we sometimes observe others. This can be seen in Skeletons Fighting over a Dead Man below (1891).

James Ensor: Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring Two Skeletons Fighting over a Dead Man James EnsorFighting Skeletons of James Ensor

James Ensor, Two Skeletons Fighting over a Dead Man, 1891, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Onlookers stand back as the central almost tragicomical performance takes place. It is farcical: two skeletons fight over a dead body on the floor, while another body hangs in the middle with the word ‘civet’ (‘stew’ in French). Can it be that they are fighting over food? The masked onlookers appear concerned, puzzled, amused and even delighted by the spectacle, but they also appear hungry, one or two of them holding knives ready to cut off their share.


Ensor uses the figure of Death – a figure that needs no sustenance of any kind and feels no shame or embarrassment – to mirror the baser behaviours of human beings. In the meantime Ensor’s live people are masked: we do not know what they are thinking behind the concealed faces. This creates a frightening and unpredictable situation where normal expectation has been subverted.

James Ensor: Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring Masks Confronting Death James Ensor Fighting Skeletons of James Ensor

James Ensor, Masks Confronting Death, 1888, MoMA, New York

In Masks Confronting Death (1888) Ensor again uses a skeleton or Death figure, but this time places it in the midst of masked onlookers. They close in around the central figure, curious perhaps, or maybe irresistibly drawn to it in recognition of the ultimate destiny of all living things. There is no sense of the absurd in this painting, but instead, there is isolation and inevitability. Ensor had lost his father the year before he painted this, so perhaps he was confronting the impermanence of his own life.

 For more information:

   


Reader, writer and professional daydreamer (very accomplished at this last one). Huge fan of 20th Century illustrators Charles Keeping, Gerald Scarfe and Mervyn Peake. Totally in love with the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and almost anything with a ghost in it!

Comments

More in Halloween Special

  • dailyart

    All Souls & Halloween: Death in Art

    By

    All Souls & Halloween: Death in art seems like a fitting title for an article in October! The feast day of All Souls and the festival of Halloween are celebrated close to each other in the Western calendar, but despite being closely associated with each other...

  • dailyart

    La Calavera Catrina. A Skeleton Lady

    By

    We all know Coco, a Pixar animation about a boy who dreams of becoming a musician, so he enters a talent contest, suddenly disappears from this world and finds himself in the after life, among the dead. It received a Golden Globe in the Best Animated...

  • Halloween Special

    12 Famous Funeral Paintings of Western Art

    By

    Funeral practices are deeply ingrained in all cultures and hugely varied traditions around the globe reflect a wide spread of beliefs and values. On the days we remember the deceased, let’s take a look at  famous funeral paintings in Western art–some of them depict funerals of...

  • Dante and Virgil Dante and Virgil

    Halloween Special

    Halloween in Hell: Dante and Virgil

    By

    Halloween night is this time of year when we go from light to darkness, where we can see and experience demons. For this special occasion, I want to treat you to a work that brings all of the dark aspects of Haloween together. There is a...

  • Halloween Special

    Double Double Toil and Trouble: Witches in Art and Modern Media

    By

    Tis the season….no, not of Christmas. Halloween. The time for Fall festivals, hayrides, corn mazes, and pumpkin patches. Grotesque goblins, creepy ghosts, and blood-sucking vampires; It most certainly is a spooktacular time of year. One of my favorite parts of the Halloween season are the scary...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy