A painting made in 1891 could have been made this morning since it speaks so easily to the drift of our time. Maybe that’s why the work has broken auction sale records for Belgian artist James Ensor and sold for 1.5 million in Sotheby’s, Paris last week. History books say that Ensor was a Post-Impressionist, but if anything, the designation should be Anti-Impressionist given that he couldn’t stand the stuff, that obsessive focus of Monet and all those who sought to capture the shifting effects of light. He called them “superficial daubers.” Ensor wasn’t interested in painting pretty pictures. He paid attention to the darkness of the world, its ugliness, and because we have a ton of it, beginning with the intolerance of foreigners, his is a painting for all seasons.

Telling it like it is in paint

Ensor’s picture titles tell the story: “Death of Masks,” “Fighting over a Hanged Man,” and “The Murder.” He set his sights on monstrous things and put them behind grotesque masks. The painting that just sold titled “Squelette arrêtant masques” (Skeleton stopping the Masks), pictures a masked ball said to represent the clash between good and evil. His biography seems to explain some of what made him so mad. When his sister became engaged to a Chinese #Art dealer, the interracial relationship didn’t go over very well in their home town of Ostend, Belgium. His fury over the disapproval may be reflected in “Squelette arrêtant masques” where he set people behind hideous masks to signify their phoniness, their hypocrisy.

Xenophobia lives on

Consider German Chancellor Angela Merkel, known for her stance against the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim mindset in her country and throughout Western Europe.

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In an about-face, she now supports a ban on face veils, rationalizing that it’s a security measure. That’s like saying that the yarmulke should not be worn by Jewish men because it might bring on anti-Semitism. In effect, such bans surrenders to fear of all things foreign. It’s no wonder that Ensor had a low opinion of humanity and disfigured people, misshaping them at every turn, and piling on with garish colors that are purposely crude so they repulse. Even his unmasked faces are frightening to see.

What the art world needs now are more James Ensors

Apparently Ensor was a person of strong opinions from the start. According to fellow Belgian painter Roger Can Gindertael, when he began studying at the Academie Royale des Beau-Arts in Brussels and was told to paint the bust of a Roman emperor (Octavius) from a plaster cast. Gindertael quotes him saying, “The snow-white plaster made my flesh creep. I turned it into bright pink goose-flesh and made the hair red...” He had his reasons, the one he always had, his disdain for intolerance. As Sotheby’s points out, the student body was divided between devoutly religious students and those that cared about science, and “Squelette arrêtant masques” may reflect that. Clearly, the man was ahead of his time. #Immigration