Pierrot et squelettes (Pierrot and Skeletons) is one of a celebrated series of paintings of masks and skeletons that James Ensor made repeatedly throughout his career. In these works, the life of the outer, so-called ‘civilized’ world of manners and morals – the life of the church, of the state, of science and also of an entire array of bourgeois nicety – is rendered as nothing more than a colourful façade assembled in the face of death. The passage of human life, these paintings assert, is little other than a stage-set, a satire, a carnival and a comedy of errors. And all this is done using only an enigmatic collation of colourful and bizarre objects, masks and props drawn from the items that Ensor hoarded in his sanctum-like studio in his home in a small house in the seaside Belgian town of Ostend.
I have joyously shut myself up in the solitary domain where the mask holds sway, wholly made up of violence, light, and brilliance. To me, the mask means freshness of colour, sumptuous decoration, wild unexpected gestures, very shrill expressions, exquisite turbulence... I also liked these masks because they injured the public that gave me such a bad reception”
Painted in 1907, Pierrot et squelettes is the largest and finest of three paintings that Ensor made on the unique theme of Pierrot (the melancholic clown of the Commedia dell’arte) and the skeleton between 1905 and 1907 (see also Tricot, no. 411 and no. 427). Depicting a mask of Pierrot and his white clown’s costume hanging from a table-top that is also surmounted by four grimacing skulls wearing an array of fancy and elaborate headwear, these three Pierrot et squelettes paintings serve as a development of an earlier sequence of works that Ensor had made in which a single skull was surrounded by laughing, mocking carnival masks. This earlier sequence of paintings includes the works Masques raillant la mort of 1888 (Tricot, no. 289; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), La Mort et les masques of 1897 (Tricot, no. 386; Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain Liège (MAMAC)) and Le Grand Juge of 1898 (Tricot, no. 387; Private collection). Each of these earlier paintings appeared to depict the figure of Death as a solitary, interior mask, worn by all mankind and here being either mocked by, or silently joining in the mocking of all those around him.
In his three paintings made on the theme of Pierrot et squelettes, the solitary figure of the Pierrot appears not just to be mocked by the colourfully dressed skulls surrounding him, but also attacked and perhaps even devoured by them. In the first of these paintings made in 1905, the figure of Pierrot is also seen holding a bloody knife. As the Ensor specialist Xavier Tricot has written about this painting, this bizarre portrait of an apparently murderous Pierrot being assaulted by skeletons may derive from a number of Hoffman or Edgar Allen Poe-esque stories in which the normally mournful and victim-like character of Pierrot took on the role of an assassin. These were works such as Jules de Champfleury’s Pierrot Servant of Death, (Pierrot valet de la mort), Paul Marguerite’s pantomime Pierrot the Wife-Killer (Pierrot Assassin de sa femme) and Jean Richepin’s Pierrot Assassin – all plays which enjoyed a certain popularity on the French stage in the late 19th Century (See X. Tricot, James Ensor, exh. cat., Frankfurt, 2005, p. 180).
In this 1907 painting, however – which, as the largest and most precisely-rendered of the three pictures on this theme, is likely to be the final version – Ensor has omitted the bloody knife. Instead, in this culminating work, the skeletons are now rendered as more than just skulls. Here, they are shown also with skeletal legs extending beneath the table-top and are in the process of actively attacking the figure of Pierrot. To the left, for example, the bony hand of one skull claws at Pierrot’s shoulder while another appears to be biting into his fleshy hand. As in all three versions, the skulls are dressed in elaborate, carnival-like headgear and arranged under a swinging paraffin lamp. The implication is that – like some medieval passion-play – the scene depicted represents some kind of carnival of death in which the melancholic individual, Pierrot, is being mocked and assaulted by a grotesque collective.
As a man who both believed and publicly asserted that religion and science were ‘cruel goddesses, drenched in tears and blood,’ the theme of a vulgar crowd of grotesque carnival revellers assaulting, mocking and denigrating a solitary individual is one of the staples of Ensor’s art (quoted in H. Todts, ‘A Capricious Artistic Quest for bliss: Postmodernist “avant la lettre”’, in James Ensor, exh. cat., London, 2016-2017, p. 23). This theme was most famously rendered, of course, in his vast, carnivalesque masterpiece L’Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles en 1889 (Tricot, no. 293; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). And like this work, his many paintings on this theme of the individual being mocked by the crowd are all widely understood to articulate something of Ensor’s own inner feelings of isolation and victimhood as a misunderstood figure living very much in the midst of an often narrow-minded, small-town, petit-bourgeois community where his art, for many years, went completely unappreciated. The lone figures of Christ and of Pierrot in these paintings are often thought to be proto-self-portraits of Ensor who also often depicted himself as a skeleton.
A precise interpretation of the intentions behind Ensor’s fascinating but ultimately mysterious allegory-like paintings of masks and skeletons is, however, never likely to be found. ‘Reason and nature,’ Ensor once famously declared, ‘are the enemy of the artist’ (quoted in M. Prodger, ‘A Man of Many Masks,’ The Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, no. 132, Autumn 2016, p. 69). And, true to his word, like artists such as Goya before him or Max Beckmann after him, Ensor’s work, though fuelled by a fascination with the grotesque and an often penetrative sense of human life as tragi-comic masquerade, insists upon remaining an enigma. His paintings, like many of Goya’s and Beckmann’s, are always both compelling and unmistakably his, but their ultimate charm is to remain intriguing while also wholly mystifying. This is the reason that Ensor it today regarded as both a Symbolist and a forerunner of Surrealism, as well as an Expressionist and a satirist. His vision is entirely unique.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).