'Yes, our actions are pictorial, our inventions are enormous, our thoughts are tragicomical, our temptations are burlesque, our desires are born of the flatlands, our paradises are made of dough and condensed milk, and our endearments are made of butter' (James Ensor, quoted in Michel Draguet, 'Ensor; Theater of Matter,' exh. cat., James Ensor, New York, 2009, p. 90).
Painted in the same year as his great masterpiece L'entrée du Christ à Bruxelles, the present richly worked and intimate still-life scene would at first sight appear to be the complete opposite to this vast canvas of mask-like figures entering the artist's capital city. Yet, for Ensor, all of life was a kind of 'theatre of matter' to which he, as a painter, brought a particularly visceral understanding. In the same way that Ensor's figure subjects parade across his canvases often as a macabre collation of masks, whose fixed grins, leers and frozen expressions display a carnivalesque strangeness and exoticism, so too do the series of still life paintings he produced regularly throughout his life.
Presented, as in this work, on a simple shelf set against a sky-like background so that the shelf seems to become a beach receding into the sea, the simple forms of the objects under study here take on an exotic, almost surreal aspect or sense of otherworldly reality. Painted with fine, almost obsessive craftsmanship and a strong visceral fascination with their texture and material nature, Ensor's objects become a theatre or carnival of their own. Part landscape, part figure-study, part still-life the compositional grouping in this work becomes a fascinating and sensual study in material contrasts that collectively embraces and celebrates the richness, variety and strangeness of life.