'Hounded by those on my tail, I joyfully took refuge in the land of the fools where the mask, with its violence, its brightness and brilliance, reigns supreme. The mask meant to me: freshness of colour, extravagant decoration, wild generous gestures, strident expressions, exquisite turbulence'
‘These masks are ghostly, disturbing, they have every characteristic of life, the same frightened impression that is also sensed in a waxwork museum. And they express all the enigmatic, obscurely mysterious, unpleasant and strangely grotesque side of life’ August Vermeylen
Fusing the carnival with the commedia dell’arte, Baptême des masques welcomes the viewer into marvellous, fantastical and enigmatic world of the inscrutable Belgian artist, James Ensor. From the mid-1880s onwards, masks and the carnival came to dominate Ensor’s work, frequently featuring in his bizarre and often satirical paintings, which are entirely unique within the turn-of-the-century avant-garde. Painted in 1891, Baptême des masques encapsulates this preoccupation, its protagonists posed like actors upon a stage, absorbed in what seems to be a strange ritual or baptism. With leering grins, strange masks, enigmatic looks and fanciful costumes, these figures appear amidst an imaginary, almost hallucinatory setting, rendered in a palette of delicate, pearlescent tones.
The inspiration for Baptême des masques derives from a photograph taken at around the same time that this work was painted and features Ensor with members of the Rousseau and Nahrath families, standing in the same poses and playful costumes as the figures of the present work. It was likely Ernest Rousseau père who took the photo. Dressed in a flamboyantly coloured costume, Ensor stands in the centre, sporting a military busby and seemingly about to pour something over the horizontal figure below, perhaps enacting a part of this strange baptismal ritual. He is surrounded by others, including his great friend, Ernest Rousseau fils, all of whom are dressed up in Pierrot-like costumes and an assortment of masks, wigs, hats and feather-like props in this imaginary charade. Each figure is endowed with a distinct pose, role and appearance: from the sideways glances of the white-costumed Pierrots that flank the carefully staged group, to the disquieting presence of the seated and red-cloaked ‘grim-reaper’ figure that kneels down by the man or ‘mask’ being ‘baptised’.
This playful snapshot provides a glimpse into Ensor’s world at this time. Ensor had first met the natural scientist, Ernest Rousseau père and his young wife, a renowned mycologist, Mariette, through her brother, fellow artist, poet and writer, Théo Hannon, with whom he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. He soon became close with the family, particularly with Mariette, who would remain the artist’s confidante, and with their son, also named Ernest. This family of scientists and radical thinkers were at the centre of a progressive circle of politicians, intellectuals and writers in turn-of-the-century Brussels. Key figures in the social life of the city, they often hosted and frequented parties and masquerades, for which, as the photograph attests, they enjoyed dressing up.
This friendship had a decisive influence on Ensor’s artistic development. Not only did the Rousseaus provide the artist with support and patronage, as well as a second home in Brussels, but, through his association with them, the artist was exposed to a stimulating array of progressive views and thoughts, political, scientific and artistic. Already endowed with an anarchist streak and a very distinct way of viewing the world, Ensor’s immersion into the Rousseaus' circle further radicalised his thinking and his art, as he increasingly began to paint veiled, often satirical comments and darkly humorous critiques on Belgium’s ruling classes, religion and bourgeois conventions and pretensions. By taking a well-known Christian ritual, and simultaneously depicting it in a composition reminiscent of traditional Lamentations scenes, in Baptême des masques Ensor and his companions were perhaps poking fun at religion, transforming the clergy and worshippers into leering Pierrots and elaborately costumed figures in this strange, macabre masquerade.
It was also through his friendship with both Rousseau and Hannon that Ensor became increasingly immersed in the world of the theatre and pantomime, particularly the commedia dell’arte. Rife with both humour and satire, the commedia dell’arte was experiencing a revival of interest in the mid to late 1800s. In particular, Pierrot, one of the most popular characters in this form of Italian theatre, had become an almost ubiquitous figure in fin-de-siècle Europe, appearing with an unprecedented frequency in both the theatre and the visual arts. In 1886, Ensor’s friend, Théo Hannon had written a ballet-pantomime entitled Pierrot-Macabre, inspired by the earlier pantomimes of Champfleury, which focused on the darker qualities of this character. This, as well as numerous other plays and revues that featured the commedia dell’arte at this time sparked the artist’s imagination, complementing and encouraging his innate predilection for the art of the performance, concealed identities, costumes and masquerades.
It is therefore no coincidence that the commedia dell’arte and in particular, the character of Pierrot began to appear in Ensor’s work in the late 1880s. In the present composition, a ‘pierrotade’, as Xavier Tricot has described, it is the character, or at least the costume of Pierrot that features most obviously (X. Tricot, ‘Pierrot au Théâtre des Masques’, in Ensoriana, Antwerp, 1995, p. 47). Two figures are sporting the voluminous white outfit, complete with the elaborate ruff, that Pierrot was most commonly seen wearing. A similar and closely related work of the same date, Réunion de masques (Mascarade) (Tricot, no. 341) was likely also based on a contemporary photograph of Ensor and his friends and features the same flamboyantly attired Pierrot amidst a multi-figure composition. As in the present work, the figure of Ensor also appears, engaged in the same ritualistic pouring of liquid over the central figure. Duel de masques (Tricot, no. 382), painted in either 1892 or 1896, is the third of this closely linked group, featuring the same horizontal figure, perhaps this time lifeless following a duel – an event that took place in Hannon’s Pierrot-Macabre – amongst a troupe of costumed figures.
Many at this time regarded Pierrot, a quintessential symbol of melancholy and loneliness, as a stand-in for the fate of an artist, who was similarly seen as an outcast, striving to create work which the wider public did not understand nor appreciate. Misunderstood and derided by critics, Ensor continually depicted this character in his art, leading some to suggest he was purposefully and personally alluding to this symbolism. By using these well-known theatrical figures, Ensor could invest his surreal scenes with layers of narrative, as well as social commentary and satire, leaving the viewer searching for meaning amidst these fantastical gatherings of characters that he dreamt up with his friend Rousseau.
The troupe of characters in Baptême des masques includes two Pierrot-esque characters accompanied by a variety of other individuals sporting masks that were likely inspired by those worn by the riotous revellers of the Ostend carnival. Ensor’s hometown, Ostend, was famous for its annual Mardi Gras carnival, the most elaborate in Belgium. Every year, this seaside town was transformed into a whirling spectacle of colour, its inhabitants donning garish, ghoulish masks and flamboyant costumes and indulging in bacchanalian reverie. The theatrical masquerade of the carnival beguiled Ensor. And as a result this theme – at once theatrical, joyous and vibrant, grotesque and sinister – became the lens through which he depicted the world, allowing him to reveal the darker, underside of society and the madness and disorder that lies inherent in mankind.
‘I have joyously shut myself up in the solitary domain where the mask holds sway,’ he wrote, ‘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’ (Ensor, quoted in I. Pfeiffer & M. Hollein, James Ensor, exh. cat., Frankfurt, 2005-2006, p. 34). Ensor had grown up surrounded by these ornate masks, as well as a plethora of other objects – skulls, Chinese porcelain, skeletons, old books, prints and shells – all of which were sold in his mother’s souvenir shop in Ostend. These masks and their strange, often grotesque beauty, as well as their ability to conceal, transform and liberate their wearer, sparked Ensor’s imagination. With masks he could ridicule, satirise, scorn or simply observe different factions of society as well as social convention, while at the same time, create art that was wholly unique, colour-filled and infused with an often-disquieting sense of the surreal. The latter was a quality he revelled in, using the provocative, unsettling effect of his sometimes-sinister masked figures as a weapon to shock the hostile public out of their complacency; ‘I also liked these masks because they injured the public that gave me such a bad reception’, he once explained (Ensor, quoted in ibid, p. 35).
A testament to its importance within Ensor’s oeuvre, Baptême des masques was first exhibited in the 1892 Les XX exhibition, held in Brussels. Les XX or Les Vingt was an important avant-garde group based in Brussels that Ensor amongst others including Théo Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch and Fernand Khnopff, had founded in 1883. By 1888, Ensor’s allegiance to the group had begun to wane however, as his fellow artists turned increasingly to a Neo-Impressionist technique. In defiance of his colleagues, Ensor remained dedicated to his unique artistic style. The artist’s friend and long-term confidante, Augusta Boogaerts, or as Ensor called her, ‘La Sirène’, was the first owner of this painting, a reflection of the importance this work clearly held for the artist. It remained in her collection until her death, at which point it passed to Julienne Clea-Boogaerts.