The current title of this painting, Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved) (1918) reflects the two names it was given during James Ensor’s lifetime. Scholars have interpreted the enigmatic scene as a critique of the German occupation of Belgium during World War I, which the artist experienced firsthand. The grouping around the table evokes the Last Supper, but Christ and the Apostles are replaced by ill-behaved, grotesque and masked figures — some of Ensor’s favorite motifs. Their meager meal, including insects and a raw onion, may evoke the near-famine that Belgians endured. Ensor underscored the theme of mortality by referencing three of his works, depicting rowdy skeletons, in the background.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
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.
James Ensor (Belgian, 1860-1949), Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring, 1891
Fans of They Might Be Giants are likely already familiar with the name of artist James Ensor, because of the TMBG song “Meet James Ensor”, which is really quite fantastic. Geoffrey had never heard that song before, so I made sure to sing it to him a few times before we went to see the James Ensor exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) here in lovely, sweltering midtown Manhattan. I’m not going to go into a lot of background or biographical data on Ensor except to say that his paintings are really creepy and fun. This vast career retrospective, comprised of hundreds of drawings and paintings of all sizes and mediums, really shows his sense of humor, as well as his fascination with death and certain bourgeois aspects of the society he grew up in. Geoffrey and I both loved it. Make a date to “Meet James Ensor” before the exhibit closes on September 21st, 2009.
While you’re at MOMA, be sure to spend some time walking through Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong’sWaste Not installation (also through September 21st), which is mind boggling in its scope and really must be seen to be believed. You can read more about Ensor and other current MOMA exhibits at This Link.