Skeletons Unmasked: Exotica in the Work of James Ensor
In 1889, French neurologist Georges Valbert declaimed, “it has never been so difficult to be somebody.” He theorized that an overwhelming loss of self was one profound symptom of the age of the machine. As Valbert was contemplating the difficulty of defining oneself in an age of “progress,” Belgium painter James Ensor was pictorially expressing an individual-less society, in which both selves and others are absent. His paintings, prints, and drawings, most of which are permeated with masks, skeletons, and chinoiserie, may be read as chapters in the artist’s narrative of self-construction. His works explicate his heightened awareness of human mortality and folly, which was spawned by his constant exposure to exotica sold at his parent’s bric-a-brac shop. They may be read as expressions of a man who did not distinguish exotic from banal, indulgence from repentance, and self from other. Although exotica is sometimes fundamental in the process of self-definition, in Ensor’s case, it was seminal in building the artist’s perception of the world as a masquerade.
Keywords: Exotic, Self, Mutable Identities, Symbolist Painting, World's Fairs, Psychoanalysis
Ola Charlotte Robbins
Adjunct Professor and Ph.D. Student, Art History, Parsons The New School for Design and CUNY Graduate Center