Modern Art Monday Presents: James Ensor, Masks Confronting Death

Masks Confronting Death
Photo By Gail

Some of you might be familiar with the name of Belgian painter James Ensor from the 1994 song by They Might Be Giants, “Meet James Ensor” — but now you have the chance to see and learn about one of his most famous paintings!

In Ensor’s oil painting from 1888, A group of masked figures confronts the figure of Death, centrally situated and draped in a white color that infiltrates the entire picture. Composed of masks adorned with drapery, hats, and even blue glasses, the arrangement of figures recalls Ensor’s earlier still-life compositions. The ubiquitous masks in Ensor’s work were likely based on those sold in his family’s curiosity shop a few floors below his studio. He explained, “The mask means to me: freshness of color, sumptuous decoration, wild unexpected gestures, very shrill expressions, exquisite turbulence.” In this painting, the fantastical masked inventions appear to come alive and challenge Death—perhaps a reflection of the artist’s preoccupation with mortality and his hope that he might prevail against its inevitable dominion.

Masks Confronting Death is on view as part of the permanent collection in the Painting and Sculpture I, Gallery 1, 5th Floor at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.

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