Masks always have given me the heebie jeebies. The idea of hiding something..ew. this one will have a different twist and will focus on a artist who was obsessed with masks. Lets see how it goes.

Masks have been around for ages, with practical uses ranging from protection and disguise, to enhancing performances and entertainment. They were often used on holidays, during masquerades and carnivals as well. Masks are therefore commonly a symbol of the reckless fun that can be had during such events. But for one painter in the late 1800’s, masks held a special significance.

James Ensor is a Belgian painter, born to an English father and a French-Belgian mother in 1860. In all his 89 years, he almost never once left his hometown of Ostend, Belgium. Ostend was a port city, which one could reach by ferry from England. The town had a bloody history during the Eighty Years’ War, but later became a tourist haven due to its convenient location and nice scenery. This bit of town history had an obvious influence on Ensor’s work, which often included skulls/skeletons, and masks. Bones from the war could often be found around the town during his childhood.
He was also known to have a large collection of masks collected during the town’s frequent carnivals and masquerades. Ensor was a very sensitive and narcissistic man. He would remain at home in his room, creating paintings and sending them off to Salons, or competitions, usually receiving harsh criticism, as most didn’t appreciate his art at the time. In 1887, he received one such rejection. During the same year, his father and grandmother died. It is from this time that we see Ensor painting far more masks and skeletons, in order reflect his anger and feelings regarding loss and rejection. It was here that masks began to become a deeper symbol in Ensor’s paintings. Masks were commonly used in art as a way to disguise or conceal the wearer. However, Ensor’s masks gathered all of the negative qualities of the people there were intended to conceal. They were usually quite grotesque in design, and were maybe meant to be a physical version of the deformed human soul beneath the mask, or the perceived lack of a soul by Ensor. This reflected Ensor’s view of humanity, which he saw as weak and cruel, and his bitter encounters he had with his family and critics. One great example in which we can see this is “Masks Confronting Death” (1888).

This painting is depicted with subtle pale colors with a hint of vivid red and green sneaking in the picture. The morbid subject has a somewhat morbid feeling but at the same time provides a weirdly calming feeling. Another interesting example is his “Self Portrait with Masks” (1889).

This painting features a man in the painting, wearing a red hat. It is theorized that the man in the painting is actually Ensor wearing a mask of famous Spanish painter Rubens, who was a competitor to Ensor, and far more successful, famous, and wealthy. It wasn’t only paintings in which Ensor expressed himself with these masks and skeleton symbols, however: At the same time as working on his programmatic painting, Ensor took his revenge for the attacks directed at him, with a series of virulent panels, engravings and drawings denouncing the injustices of his time as well as expressing his own petty concerns. The viciousness and lack of constraint of these works were unequalled in these final years of the century. – Musée d’Orsay

So, hope that interested you.

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