Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why Ensor Still Matters: Buffy, Dawn of the Dead, and the Werewolf of London

A friend of mine--whose views on art I respect--said she thought the James Ensor show that just closed at the MoMa in NYC (and soon to open at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris) revealed just how "old-fashioned" he now appears. Her sense was that Ensor exemplifies Modernism grown long in the tooth, dingy old ivory compared to the Ron Arad show running on the MoMA's top floor.

I beg to differ. Ensor still has bite. Most famously, Ensor brought the ravenously inhuman, the bestial, to the surface of his bourgeois subjects. Beneath the imperial splendor and self-congratulatory rituals of European society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lurked the demonic. Precisely Ensor's portrayal of the demonic sheathed in human form or stripped down to the skeletal is what drew the crowds to his paintings at the MoMA.

Deep inside, below our own smug rituals and American splendor, is a slithering queasiness that our humanity may be a mask slipping askew. Why else our current obsession with vampires, zombies and werewolves? Buffy, Twilight , the countless "dawn of the dead" retellings, werewolves of London, Lestat, the deluge of "urban fantasies" by Butcher, Saintcrow, and their many imitators....the undead, half-living and half-beast move within us...Ensor captured them 120 years ago as surely as our authors and cineastes do today.

For a superb multimedia presentation of the MoMA show, click here.

For an excellent discussion of the show, click here to read Sanford Schwartz in the September 24th New York Review of Books.

Lobster & Canary viewed the MoMA exhibit in July. They scribbled notes: "presages Nolde," "flattened foreground," "The Frightful Musicians, one holding a skull like a clapper," "delicate lines, skeleton in the mirror," "black chalk, hippogriff, a flea layered on top," "The Devils Dzitts and Hihahox, Led by Crazon, Riding a Wild Cat, Leading Christ into Hell," "reworking the paintings," "Steinberg," "My Aunt Dreams of Monsters," "danse macabre," "skeletons warming themselves by a stove," "masques," "chalky whites, jagged blues, reds."

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