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'THE DESPAIR OF PIERROT (JEALOUS PIERROT)'; SIGNED AND DATED LOWER RIGHT; OIL ON CANVAS.
Through this imposing work, James Ensor draws the viewer into one of the fantasy worlds he liked to dream up with his friend Ernest Rousseau Jr. The latter is portrayed at the centre of the composition, wearing a Pierrot costume and a melancholy expression, surrounded by masked figures, plus a moustached man at the right of the canvas, who represents Ernest Rousseau Sr. He seems to be reprimanding his son for his excessive escapades, which are revealed to the viewer through the charade that takes place in the rest of the composition: to Pierrot's left, hidden under a hook-nosed mask, a pawnbroker asks him to pay up, as does the drunken pimp at the far left of the composition. The painting's background reveals the reason for Pierrot's melancholic remorse: Harlequin is running off into the hills with Colombina, ignoring the cries and insults of Ensor's sister, Mitche, depicted in a Salvation Army uniform at the upper left of the composition. Just below her, young Ernest Rousseau Jr. displays deep concentration and wears a surgeon's uniform and performs an operation as absurd as it is vain, the removal of the madness stone from his friend Ensor's head, as the painter's face is contorted with pain. Ensor and his friend did preliminary work on this scene in the Ostend dunes, posing in burlesque stances in front of the painter's camera (fig. 1).
The composition includes several contemporary literary references and draws from a rich and varied iconographic repertory, juxtaposing traditional commedia dell'arte characters such as Pierrot, Harlequin and Colombina with the popular Ostend Carnival masks they wear and with motifs taken from the works of Watteau and Hieronymous Bosch. Ensor also borrows many elements directly from his own experience.
During his studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (1877-1880) James Ensor developed a friendship with Théo Hannon, who introduced him to his sister Mariette, wife of Ernest Rousseau, who was president of the Brussels Free University at the time, and to his nephew, Ernest Rousseau Junior. Through this second family of free-thinkers and humanists, Ensor made his first foray into the intellectual and artistic circles of Brussels. His bond with Théo and more importantly with Ernest Rousseau Junior focused around a shared fascination for masquerade, pantomime and zwanze, the satirical humour typical of Brussels.
In 1886, Théo published a pantomime entitled Pierrot macabre1 which was inspired by Champfleury's pantomimes from four decades earlier. The painting's background seems to make a few references to this work. The windmill may suggest Pierrot's profession as a miller, which would explain the origin of his flour-white countenance. The madness stone scene may refer to the episode in which an unscrupulous doctor offers to remove Pulcinello's hump of avarice, which he considers to be his most prized attribute. This scene is also depicted in a painting by Hieronymous Bosch and is therefore a double reference (fig. 2).
However, these allusions do not conceal the painting's fundamentally critical nature. Pierrot, the painting's central figure, bears a special aura at this fin de siècle. This victim of perpetual infidelities, a phlegmatic dandy with a fatal melancholy, symbolises the solitary artist, either a poet or a damned painter2. This figure from literature and pantomimes blossoms mid-19th century in the work of Champfleury. The mime Debureau, immortalised by the Nadar brothers, was a key figure in the genre in the early second half of the 1800s. But it was in the later decades of the century that the character would take a more troubling, less conventional turn. Determined to cease being the butt of the joke, the fool, now furiously jealous, is a bloodthirsty degenerate. His white jacket and his immaculate complexion are now only attributes designed to give the illusion of the suddenly-depraved purity of a false naf; dark rebellion lurks within. Several plays alluded to this theme, starting with Paul Margueritte's Pierrot assassin de sa femme in 1882 and Jean Richepin's Pierrot assassin, one year later. Finally, tragic actress Sarah Bernhard, whose taste for cross-dressing roles and morbidity added to her extravagant nature - she was fond of sleeping in a coffin - played an unforgettable Pierrot onstage at the Palais du Trocadéro. Nadar immortalised the character, his hands in his pockets, with the posture of an androgynous old soldier (fig. 2).
Making several appearances in Ensor's work, Pierrot embodies the concerns of the painter's personality and his art. The character, ambiguous in many ways, an insufferable victim, is a Christ figure with profane insults; he is a pariah, the painter's alter ego3, whose feelings towards the intellectual circles and the artistic avant-garde of Brussels in his day come through in a very tense relationship. Pietje de dood ("Pierrot the dead man"), as he was called in Ostend because of his lanky build and his pallid complexion, ceaselessly saw himself as misunderstood. Dismissed as a madman by the critics, Ensor decided to take refuge behind a phantasmagorical world inhabited by Carnival masks and grotesque skeletons. In 1880, he returned to Ostend and moved into the garret of his family home, where he set up his studio. He was increasingly marginalised because of his iconographic choices and felt like an outcast. In fact, his monumental painting Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888-89; Tricot, no. 280) signifies a profession of faith in that respect. The painter uses the monumentality of Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (The Chicago Art Institute), which was exhibited to Les XX in 1887, to criticise the pointillist work's vanity and form. Instead of an Arcadian composition based on the rules of normal, ordered scientific painting, Ensor creates a hysteric, anarchic urban landscape and uses garish planes of pure colour. Christ, a stand-in for the artist who dreamed of heading up the avant-garde, is lost amidst the mad crowd, the thundering fanfares and the grimacing masks, alone against the world, most of all his co-members of the avant-garde group Les XX, who rallied around Seurat's art and are here the target of Ensor's satire.
In The Despair of Pierrot, the clown character stands in for Christ, portrayed frontally, facing public vindication, as in the Ecce Homo, alone to face the world, alone against the world. This metamorphosis of Christ into Pierrot also corresponds to the transformation Ensor forced upon his art. His use of masks and his predilection for the grimacing, grotesque popular world of Carnival, first seen in the 1883 etching Masques scandalises, would increasingly dominate Ensor's art from 1892 onward. His work took a definite turn towards theatrically staging cruelty and revolt. Because masks enable transfers of all kinds, they allow wearers to see the world and human society freely, in an unparalleled way and in all its causticity, while protecting the artist from his excesses. As the painter said himself, "And my suffering, scandalised, insolent, cruel, mean masks [...]; hunted and pursued, I am joyously confined to the solitary land of contempt governed by the muffled mask of violence and spark"4.
In 1893, James Ensor was definitively cut off from the Brussels avant-garde, and the Les XX Group had broken up. It was a symbolic death of sorts that plagued him and became the stuff of legends as he sold off his entire workshop for only eight thousand francs. According to Grégoire Le Roy's account, Ensor thought he could recreate himself through this suicidal transaction. "If Ensor kept his work, it would mean - if you can believe it - that no one wanted it, even at that price. In light of such facts, you see the causes of the profound transformation at hand within his humour and his productivity"4. Although it seems rather improbable that the artist sold all of his work for such a pathetic sum, given the pain he felt upon parting from his paintings, it does help better understand the artist's solitary figure, mirrored in Pierrot's solitude, and the world's growing incomprehension of Ensor. It decidedly sheds light on the singularity that characterises Ensor and his work.
1 X. Tricot, "Pierrot au théâtre des masques", in Ensoriana, Cahier 1, 1995, p. 48.
2 J. de Palacio, Pierrot fin-de-siècle ou Les métamorphoses d'un masque, Paris, 1990.
3 J. Clair, La Grande Parade. Portrait de l'artiste en clown, Paris, 2004, p. 123.
4 Les Ecrits de James Ensor. 1928-1934, Anvers, 1934, p. 70.
5 G. Le Roy, James Ensor, Bruxelles, 1922, p. 45. Quote taken from M. Draguet, James Ensor ou la fantasmagorie, Paris, 1999, p. 216.