The work of art being discussed in this paper is Masks Confronting Death, a painting by James Ensor. The painting is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art (Manhattan, New York) (MoMA). The artist employed the oil on canvas technique to create the work of art being discussed (MoMA). The researchers assume that James Ensor painted Masks Confronting Death in 1888 (MoMA). The late 19th century and the early 20th century is, perhaps, the most controversial period in the history of mankind culturally, socially, scientifically, politically, and economically. Scholars whose area of expertise happens to be theory and history of arts list James Ensor among the founders of the Proto-Expressionist movement. In a way, James Ensor’s work can be regarded as a reflection of the era that the artist belonged to and associated himself with. Therefore, the following paper intends to analyze the formal peculiarities and historical context of the painting Masks Confronting Death by James Ensor.
The work is in a good condition. Apparently, the state of the painting plays a crucial role in forming the overall impression of the painting itself. Even more so, at some point the state of the painting can be a key to fuller understanding of the artist’s intention and the message that their works may convey. Assuming that the foregoing statement is correct, it applies to Masks Confronting Death by James Ensor. Still, the condition of the painting seems good and does not obviously interfere with appreciating of the painting itself.
The work of art under consideration portrays 6 figures. The figure in the center is dressed in white robes and a reddish white hat is placed on its head. There is something that most certainly represents a human skull instead of the figure’s face. The central figure of the painting represents Death. There are two figures to the Death’s right, and three to the Death’s left. However, it seems that initially the artist intended to portray seven figures in total – three on either side of the figure of Death. There is a barely discernible silhouette of a human face in the background. One may discern another archetypal image among those pictured in the painting, namely, Pierrot. The figure placed between Pierrot and the figure of Death is the one that wears glasses. The vast majority of figures on the painting are adorned with drapes and hats (MoMA).
As far as the physical properties of the work of art under consideration are concerned, the following aspects should be mentioned. The critics reckon that the previous works by Ensor, still-lives in particular, dictate the arrangement of figures on the painting being analyzed. The colors the artist uses are transparent,, almost translucent, mainly due to the fact that the pastel shades prevail. The brushwork can be characterized as free, bold, vigorous, energetic, agitated, and yet heavy. Apart from that, the colors that the artist used match.
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Historical context of the painting being analyzed gives an opportunity to explore and fully understand such aspects as author’s intention and the message that the painting itself contains. Thus, the following points should be taken into account. The biographers point out that James Ensor had rather complicated relationships with his contemporaries (Schjeldahl). On the other hand, as Peter Schjeldahl puts it, “Ensor painted like an angel while conceiving like a devil”. Ensor is renowned as one of the most enigmatic personalities of the Proto-Expressionist movement. The critics suggest that James Ensor was interested in the question of mortality (Schjeldahl). Assuming that the foregoing statement is correct, it is possible that the artist has also been concerned with questions of life and death, longevity, memory and oblivion, and the purpose of human life.
Masks Confronting Death by James Ensor can be viewed as an example of a work of art that refers to some of the most important ethical and philosophical questions. The late 19th and the early 20th centuries were the most controversial and ambiguous periods in the history of mankind. Omnipresent ethical and aesthetic crises were gaining momentum at the time when the systems created by men started to collapse. It happened so that commodification of labor and natural resources, urbanization, industrialization, rapid development of science and technology, human alienation from nature, decadence, and moral corruption took place simultaneously and thus all of those aspects have become intertwined. Some extraordinary events were taking place in the field of arts. On one hand, arts were stagnating. On the other hand, the very process of stagnation of arts paved the way for a great leap forward that artists have made in the first five decades of the 20th century. All things considered, apart from purely ethical and philosophical questions, Masks Confronting Death by James Ensor implies a reference to crucial artistic questions.
At this point, it is essential to take a small detour to attempt to answer the question of whether or not any other works of art exist that may resemble the one being analyzed. In a way, Ensor’s painting has very much in common with Andre Castaigne’s illustrations to the first edition of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Both pieces of art attempt to artistically reconsider the motives of death and masks as disguise. One of the most beautiful paradoxical maxims by Oscar Wilde teaches us that if one wishes another person to tell the truth, they should offer them a mask. First of all, there are several possible ways of interpreting the aforementioned saying. One way is literal. According to the other, a mask is a metaphor that suggests people should be respectful of each other’s feelings and dignity. The artist himself has once made a statement that “The mask means to me: freshness of color, sumptuous decoration, wild unexpected gestures, very shrill expressions, exquisite turbulence” (as quoted in MoMA). It is in the nature of a man to reject and leave out of account the things that unwittingly, circumstantially, matter more than anything else. The power of reason, the ultimate freedom occurs when a person is willing to accept what is going to happen to them. Masks Confronting Death is an allegorical painting. One of its multiple interpretations is a crowd that still needs a disguise to confront something so powerful, that lives revolve around it without people ever realizing it. A mask is an ancient symbol typically associated with the so-called primeval consciousness. The art of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries accumulated and intended to redefine the experience of previous generations. At the same time this period was transitional. One of its primary aftermaths was the merging of science and art. The work of art being analyzed contradicts the previous statement in a sense that the work of art itself is the pure expression of creativity and inspiration. Thus, James Ensor’s role as one of the godfathers and forerunners of the Expressionist movement becomes revealed and his life’s work proves itself to be a pure form of inspiration and expressionism.
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In conclusion, Masks Confronting Death by James Ensor is one of those works of art that are difficult to comprehend and therefore, analyze. In addition to that, the artist’s intention is not easy to deduce. After a thorough analysis of the suggested work of art, it is easy to understand that life and death, memory and oblivion, the material and the spiritual, all relate to the category of questions that have been haunting the mankind throughout its history. Mask has proved itself to be a powerful symbol. Even more so, the mask can be classified as an archetypal symbol. Archetypal symbols, as a rule, pertain to primeval consciousness. The definition of the concept of afterlife, in its own turn, varies across the cultures. All things considered, the concept of afterlife is the focal point of the painting Masks Confronting Death by James Ensor. In addition to that, the suggested work of art represents the link between the two centuries. Historically, a large amount of terrible and great events took place in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. At the time, art was something that did not let the world fall apart. To these days art serves to provoke discussion and comfort those who feel overwhelmed. The suggested work of art is compatible with the creative manner of the artist himself and it reveals that the artist tended to experiment. Masks Confronting Death can be viewed as a relevant and appropriate illustration of the epoch that the creator of the painting belonged to and associated himself with. All things considered, the work of art being analyzed proves the importance of exploring such aspects as the historical context, the artist’s intentions, and deducing the message that the the work of art conveys.