The Fools Are Being Fooled and the Winners Are Winning. Everyone is Where They Are Supposed to Be – Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man by James Ensor

Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man by James Ensor
Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man by James Ensor

A majestic scene. Tragic yet comic. Two skeletons argue over the body of a hanged man. Is this the final scene of a play? Will all the characters take off their masks and greet the crowd?

Ensor’s painting mystifies normality and spotlights the unforeseen. In a cold color palette made of icy blues, sharp reds, and turquoise greens, he depicts characters gesturing like puppets. In the grand theatre of life, the dead are alive and kicking, and the rest only get to spectate. Hidden behind grotesque masks, pointy noses, rounded, ugly and angry faces, envious of the first roles; the mass quietly watches the scene, standing against the doors while a dramatic performance is acted by ghosts. They hold hostage two members of the normal confederation, one of them is hanging from the ceiling, and according to the sign from their mouth that reads ‘civet’, as in ‘stew’ in French, they are about to get cut, stuffed and cooked to the great pleasure of the hangman’s captors..  Their sadistic intentions are translated through the scene, designed to provoke humankind’s essence and irremediable lethal nature.

One of the skeleton holds a broom up in the air, ready to hammer its partner in crime while elegantly leaning on its umbrella. Facing her- the red skirt, booties, and colorful hat give away the fact that it is a woman; an arched skeleton operates some sort of pointy metal weapon towards its enemy, appearing to be a simple broom. These characters have been defined as skeletons and are now reminiscent of witches, or perhaps they are simply children playing a trick. The way they clumsily hold objects to alternatively defend and attack shows how little they are actually willing to kill and feast over dead bodies. Never mind, this is entertainment and we’ll watch, whatever the reasons for their dispute.

The painter seems to have left us alone with the performance. He left us either in, or outside the canvas to imagine scenarios about death, normality and ridicule. He also left with one legitimate unanswered question: which ones are we? In a world where skeletons interact with human beings, are we a representation of death or a masked living presence?

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