A.When the protective masks came on all of our faces, many thought of Ensor. No artist has more painted, drawn or etched masks in his work than the painter, born in Ostend, Belgium in 1860, son of an English father of the same name and the Flemin Catherina Haegheman. A large number of the most important of these mask images can now be seen as generous loans from Belgium and above all Ostend (where, apart from three years of art studies, Ensor lived in Brussels until his death in 1949) in an exhibition at the Mannheim Kunsthalle, more than a hundred so far only very rarely issued sheets.
But the comparison with corona masks remains superficial. On the one hand, the Mannheim show was conceived long before the outbreak of the pandemic, on the other hand, Ensor’s larvae offer no protection. On the contrary: they “expose” the horribly masked, who often stand around a central figure without distance, as a threat. Even with Ensor, death often wears a gruesome mask over the pale skull, for example in the “Arrest of the Masks” from 1891 in the “Death and the Masks” room.
The question that arises is why now, after a long maternity leave, Ensor’s imagery is experiencing a renaissance – he was just as centrally represented in the exhibition on Belgian symbolism in Berlin’s Alter Nationalgalerie (FAZ on September 29, 2020) as he was in the next station of this show will be in Munich. The renewed interest could be due to a basic problem of the selfie age and the constantly required self-improvement: Ensor’s search for identity behind the everyday disguise, which can be felt in every picture.
Why Mannheim is now stepping forward with such an extensive individual show on Ensor is clarified by means of a triad of pictures, two of which once belonged to the Kunsthalle and which are here distributed over two halls. In the middle of a doorway on the first floor, which is dedicated to painting, the radiantly evil “Death and the Masks” from 1897 is shown, as one of the first Ensors bought for a German museum in 1927 by the then Mannheim director Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, in 1937 as “degenerate” removed from the collection and auctioned in 1939 in Lucerne to the City Museum of Liège, from where it was fortunately on loan.
In this key image, death in the midst of the masked undead is still very much alive, as betrayed by the cheeky eye in the left cave and the just-dying candle of life in his hand. Why, however, a man with a bare butt defecated from a hot-air balloon on the disguised Pierrot underneath, who could also have come from Hieronymus Bosch except for the balloon, remains an open question.
Between Turner and Bosch
One explanation could be the “Painting Skeleton” flanking “Death and the Masks” on the left, on which Ensor himself is working as a bone man in a sky blue suit on a tiny picture on the easel. For this macabre self-portrait as a painting dead person, he gradually transformed a photograph of himself and his studio, which had probably already been seen in articles about him in art magazines; the X-ray of the picture shows him still with a normal face and sitting, as in the photo. Obviously that was too “dead” for him – and so he painted himself over as a standing, highly agile death, as a dandy with a pocket square and allusive brushes. With Ensor’s bizarre humor, a media-effective, self-deprecating self-presentation to the public can be assumed.
The fact that the pictures with their symbolism of death can be read symbolistically, but always with a wink, is evident not least from his founding of a carnival club, of which he was proud: the “Company of the Dead Rat”. Finally, the still life “Der tote Hahn” (The Dead Rooster) from 1894, in which the poultry at the table dangles upside down from a kind of mast on which the tablecloth is stretched as a sail, leans against one wall of this studio, which is fully hung in Petersburg. The original of this still life, purchased in 1956, hangs on the right side of the hallway and completes the triad of the surreal.