Sep 21, 2010

James Ensor's "Skeletons Fighting Over a Smoked Herring" (1891)

James Ensor and Ernest Rousseau
on the beach near Ostende (ca. 1892)
I have long been fascinated by Goya's Duelo a garrotazos or Duel with Cudgels (c. 1820), and for years kept a color photocopy of it pinned to the wall near my desk. I love how the two duelers look like giants on account of the viewer's low perspective and the long, wide dimensions of the canvas. And how, when you look at them as giants, the knee-deep grass in which the men stand turns into a thick fog laid over over a hidden landscape, and the hills in the background appear to be mountains.

Francisco Goya, Duelo a garrotazos or Duel with Cudgels (1819-23)


I thought of Duel with Cudgels when I first saw James Ensor's Skeletons Fighting Over a Smoked Herring.   


James Ensor, Skeletons Fighting Over a Smoked Herring (1891)
The diagonal lines of tension (drawn in one case by the angle of the cudgels, in the other by the dried fish), the strangely gigantic presence of all four fighters, the dramatic blue skies almost entirely obscured by white clouds, and the hills (just barely hinted at in Ensor's work) in the backgrounds of both paintings all suggest——to me, at least——that Ensor was probably quoting Goya in Skeletons...

Another Goya painting also comes to mind when looking at Ensor's comic and weird and creepy but somehow also elegant painting——the weird and creepy, totally uncomic and purposely inelegant Saturn Devouring His Children.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring his Children (c.1820)
Ensor's painting supposedly depicts his critics (the skeletons) tearing him (the fish) apart, but even if the purported topic is utterly frivolous compared to Goya's, the imagery itself is nearly as chilling. And something about the way the skeleton on the left is chomping on the fish (not to mention the phallic shape of what he is chomping) once again seems to echo what's going on in Goya's painting.  Intentional or not, I find the echoes between all three images striking. And the echoes between all three paintings and the photograph of Ensor and Rousseau, above, even more so. What Skeletons Fighting Over a Smoked Herring, Saturn Devouring His Children, and the antics of Ensor and Rousseau are actually saying about the relationship between eating and death remains a little murky. But it's certainly something to, um,  chew on. 

RELATED LINK: Ouroburos and Autocannibalism 
"Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." —W. H. Auden