Skeletons Unmasked: Exotica in the Work of James Ensor

By Ola Charlotte Robbins.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In 1889, French neurologist Georges Valbert declaimed, “it has never been more difficult to be somebody” (Valbert 1889, 692). He theorized that an overwhelming loss of self was one profound symptom of the age of the machine. As Valbert was contemplating the difficulty of defining oneself in an age of “progress,” Belgium artist James Ensor was pictorially expressing an individual-less society, in which both selves and others are absent. His paintings, prints, and drawings, most of which are permeated with masks, skeletons, and chinoiserie, blur the distinction between exotic and banal, indulgence and repentance, and self and other. Although the exotic is sometimes fundamental in the process of self-definition, in Ensor’s case, it was seminal in building a perception of the world as a masquerade.

Keywords: Exotic, Identity, Mask, Skeleton, Symbolist Painting, James Ensor, Psychoanalysis, Mirror

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp.423-432. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.154MB).

Ola Charlotte Robbins

Adjunct Professor and Ph.D. Student, Art History, CUNY Graduate Center and Parsons The New School for Design, New York, New York, USA

In addition to completing my doctorate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, I am an adjunct professor of Art History at Parsons The New School for Design and Kingsborough Community College. I am particularly interested in turn-of-the-century European paintings that respond to contemporary philosophy and psychology and defy traditional notions of space and time. I recently presented a paper on Arthur Schopenhauer’s influence on Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, in which I argued that de Chirico pictorially demonstrates Schopenhauer’s notion that time is a constructed representation.

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