James Ensor’s definition of a mask

When you look over this picture, what do you make of it? Besides the individual creatures collectively wearing masks, an obvious reference to the shifty ‘two faced’ nature of people in modern society, the general lack in eye contact, boom- the message behind this post must be an examination of the hypocritical idiocy of the upper class, and the sheep culture that flocks to the crumbs, queue the pool of pointless existence since we’re ending early.


Let’s paint a picture.

Take a boy growing up in Belgium, Brussels. English parents, average childhood, extended travels to England and Germany. The boy drops school, jaded at a young age, growing disdain for academia culture, begins artistic painting and attends school in Brussels. Slowly, under scandalous review, the boy not only becomes a man but also a fully recognized painter, a baron to the king. Yet, even with glory and fame under his belt, the man declines in originality, moves to music, queue the solitude. The man becomes an old man, and leads out a quiet life in his home in the snow. The old man stayed true to his policy of seclusion, even refusing to warnings of bombardment in the midst of war. Yet the old man continues out in his home in the snow until his death, minor illness.

This man is James Ensor, the background to my inquiry, the piece titled  The Intrigue (1890). But who this boy was, wasn’t so much in his story, but in the layers un-examined, yet almost obvious once one begins to notice the trend in the art.

If you may dare, take heed and look up the full picture of this work. Politicians gathered around in a masquerade, or at least some formal event of distinction from the common individual. These obscure wretches simply stand around, unable to show movement or much emotion given their costume,  never to look another in the eye, even with masks as a safeguard.This work especially shows his reflection of the social elite in a work of irony. It illustrates royalty and political status as nothing more than a cheap gimmick, a costume party for fools, and it’s actually quite funny to him  You’ll notice the central character, the one with the top hat, shares a steady gaze with the midwife (i’m assuming) adjacent to him, carrying who I assume to be his child, or at least a child with some relevance to the situation. She holds the child out to him almost as a reminder, while making note to bring her hand up to his chest, not only out of sight of the central character’s date/significant other (another assumption), but pointing up, to the abstract realm of the author, maybe questioning life outside the party. What could be going on in this moment, in this alternate realm, the realm of masks and costumes?

This is what I enjoy the most about art, the ability to lace any scene with theorems and probabilities.  Embedded in the canvas are layers of sarcasm and social disgust lies Ensor’s greatest asset: surreal comedy. He creates scenes almost like a puppet master, designing his sets like introspective cutouts, memories and ideals inter played on canvas. Maybe growing up above a costume/carnival store, or his rise into the Belgian elite, hell, being dubbed Baron by the king might have influenced this. Maybe other variables throughout his career might give weight, maybe paradigm shifts in the early 20th century had a say, it’s generally a Bronfenbrenner-esque culmination. Maybe he stuck with the perceptions he constructed growing up, comparing people to clowns in costumes, expression of genuine emotions hidden under masks, all the while reality beckons below, clinging to his sleeve. Maybe this direction of thought led him to seclusion.

Art is built from the ground up, forged out of the daily human experience, it did not simply come with the museum, the artist came before the chicken. Often, if you want to better understand pieces like The Intrigue, it’s open for our infinite interpretation yet one might benefit the most from looking at the author more than the canvas. In the simplest of terms, we, much like James, are the variable to existence. Scales of success and failure, values and interpretations are at our disposal yet we are equally subject to this arrangement. But this is a refreshing process. In the midst of trends and cultural shifts, outliers still manage to not only flourish, but inspire.


Into the carnival we go, don’t forget to bring your mask.

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