James Ensor, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Hieronymous Bosch have all painted depictions of the torment of Saint Anthony by demons and monsters. In Ensor’s Tribulations of Saint Anthony (1887), he makes undeniable references to both of his predecessors’ works. Many of the ghouls, chimeras, and devils are remarkably similar in all three artists’ versions: fish walk on land and float in the sky, figures and animals have either an overabundance or curious lack of faces or limbs, and various forms of excretion and excrement are sprinkled across the landscape. The figure of Saint Anthony himself is of little importance in all of the paintings. Aside from the nearly 400 years that separate the works, there is something else that makes Ensor’s Tribulations stand apart. The figures in Bosch and Bruegel’s paintings are humorous caricatures, and while there is humor in Ensor’s figures of pooping devils and insect-humans, it is sardonic. It is the kind of laughter born of cruelty instead of fantasy. How can such an emotional difference between paintings depicting imagery that is remarkably similar be accounted for? I think it has to do with touch.
Bosch and Bruegel’s figures are undeniably present in the space of the landscape. The lines are clear and tight, and each micro-scene is delineated with the same level of precision. By contrast, the figures in Ensor’s painting are constantly forming and then fading–disintegrating, really, into chaos. Most of the painting is created using a scratchy, scumbling mark that sometimes disappears, particularly around the canvas borders. Some parts of the painting are completely untouched, leaving the blank canvas exposed. Many of the demons and monsters are drawn with a line so delicate it is almost not there. Because they are drawn on top of the background landscape, which is a complete abstract painting in itself, they appear as an afterthought. Alternatively, there are beings missing their outlines: they emerge from the blobs of color that make up the structure of the composition. These paint monsters have no discernible ending or beginning. They float around as thick splashes of Venetian red or exist as a scribble of goop with eyeballs. The smooth fat of their paint-bodies is cut into with some sharp object, perhaps the opposite end of a paintbrush, in a hurried frenzy. The upper right corner of the painting completely devolves into rapid fire strokes of paint in colors reminiscent of a combination of mud, blood, bile, and raw meat. It is a color and consistency that Paul McCarthy would likely admire.
Spatially, the painting is rather flat. Aside from the distinction of the reddish foreground and white-blue background, there are no other planes. Even the objects in the foreground and background have no depth or dimension. Rather, they are a collection of marks sitting atop the surface that occasionally and haphazardly come together to form a sea monster’s face or a lanky skeleton. In this sense, the painting is distinctly modern, positioning the act of painting and the physicality of the paint as equally important as representational imagery. The illusion of believable space would be a disruption to the painting’s emotional tenor. Gravity has no place here. Bruegel and Bosch employ the same kind of displacement of space: the ground in Bosch’s Temptations tilts towards the viewer rather than receding, destroying the illusion of foreground, middleground, and background. In a flattened space, everything happens at once–NOW–creating nonstop simultaneity in space and time.
James Ensor, The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, (Detail)
Bruegel and Bosch frighten us with clarity of imagination and keen speculation of Hell’s creatures. The terror of Ensor’s Tribulations is that of speed, mania, and resistance to resolution. Ensor replaces the physicality of monsters and devils in the sixteenth century with the horror of the nonphysical, specifically, the horror of the mind. Ensor did not use paint as a means of illustrating this tale, but rather reenacts the frenzy of a madman driven insane by psychological demons. To me, this painting is a century ahead of its time. Ideas of painting as performance and medium as subject are combined effortlessly, brilliantly, with image making and figuration. Tribulations is a delicious peek inside Ensor’s mind and his love of the beautiful-grotesque. It is the realization of a lush dream that slips into a nightmare.
Sarah Slappey is a Brooklyn-based artist exploring fear, delight, shame, and beauty. She received her MFA from Hunter College in 2016 and has exhibited throughout the US. www.sarahslappey.com