In No Exit, Jean Paul Sartre makes the claim “Hell is other people (‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’).” The viewer examining James Ensor’s Intrigue may wonder if Ensor would have seconded Sartre’s sentiments.
We know of Ensor that he was inclined towards solitude. For instance, though he had a privileged slot among Belgium’s very fashionable Les XX group/exhibition series as one of its founding members, even among such esteemed and like-minded company he was given to fits and outbursts of extreme antisocial sentiments toward the group’s members. These antisocial tendencies were not restricted to behind-the-scenes: he often brought them to center stage, such as his spectacularly vulgar painting of figures emitting all manner of refuse over a double X.
Without delving into the minutia of those interpersonal struggles, I bring attention to this fact to underscore my broader thesis on 1911’s Intrigue: the titular reference to intrigue is a broader strafe at the masquerade of society’s interpersonal dynamics itself. In common English, “intrigue” is sometimes paired with the adjective “petty.” I propose that Ensor was mocking society- particularly, “high society”- and the sometimes cynical nature of interpersonal relationships. It is likely the “petty intrigue” that Ensor refers to, and not a mysterious or fascinating quality.
In the piece Intrigue, an array of characters are gathered. They all have strange faces, most of which appear to be masks. Much is made of Ensor’s love of masks, and he often painted them in a more-or-less straight forward, observational fashion. These characters in Intrigue are no mere masks, however: they are people wearing masks. When people wear masks, they conceal their true appearance with an artificial one, one that is perhaps more “intriguing.”
The obvious links between artifice, secrecy, disingenuousness, etc., and the symbol of the mask may all apply in this painting. The idea that people are not themselves in social interactions, but something they hope to be perceived as, seems to be prima facia in this work of Ensor’s. It is interesting, though extra-textual here, to note that we know of Ensor’s deep and intense disdain for “pretense,” fashionability, and social posturing from many sources from journals to letters to friends and relatives.
Masks are also inextricably linked to the traditions of comedy and tragedy in the European context, particularly before the advent of cinema and television. The Commedia Dell’Arte and its dynamic relationship with Flemish artistic culture has been widely remarked upon, for example. The take on the Commedia particular to Belgium (Ensor’s beloved home) was very much related to the intriguing corruptions of drinking, lust, and general hedonism.
Beyond the Commedia, Ensor may be making an amusing reference to another “comedy” with his inclusion in the right-hand corner of a figure somewhat resembling a grotesque version of Botticelli’s portrait of Dante Alighieri (see below). There is anything but “divine” about Ensor’s depiction of The Intrigue, as is suggested by the central figures of a bourgeois couple. At the time of Ensor, to be bourgeois was thought to be the consummate worldly creature: tied to wealth accumulation, obsession with physical possessions and trappings of productivity, etc., the bourgeoisie were often foils in art and literature as an antonym for spiritual and cultural concerns.
Intrigue additionally references a trend in European urban culture of colonialism- specifically, orientalism. Though Ensor’s fascination with artifacts from the Far East was likely rooted in a genuine aesthetic appreciation, modern commentators are hard-pressed to not connect European obsessions with the Orient with love of novelty at a de minimus level. Taken to its extreme, Orientalism often privileged “secret,” “mysterious,” or “hidden” knowledge and “wisdom” of the remote Asian peoples in a way that is seen by some as having encouraged, justified, or celebrated Imperialism and colonial projects among other consequences. The complicated and numerous facets of Orientalism have created a number of critical studies and responses to it. Indeed, Ensor’s contemporaries, colleagues, and direct antecedents (such as Delacroix, Gêrome, Tissot, Moreau, Monet, among many others) galvanized around the impetus of imported Far Eastern arts and crafts, creating a vast corpus of creative activity.
In context of his contemporaries, Ensor’s incorporation of Oriental decorative motifs was both overt and understated. Ensor’s unique visual language evolved along its own idiosyncratic path and was not explicitly imitative of Asian artistic themes and design techniques in the way many contemporaries experimented with, for example. At the same time, Ensor enthusiastically depicted Asian artifacts as subject or mise en scene in his compositions on a regular basis. His personal collection of Chinoiserie was extensive. He went so far as to create still life compositions of his collections (see Still Life below).
For the purposes of interpreting Intrigue in particular, the theme of Chinoiserie was perhaps both practical consideration (he had a wide number of actual Asian masks to observe in his studio) and a broader observation of the fashionable tastes of contemporary high society. In their “posturing,” it was commonplace for European urbanites to collect and display “exotic” imports from the Far East. In that sense, the Orientalist theme has everything to do with the intrigue in question: a European woman carrying a Chinese doll like an actual child in public is a blatant affectation. It is affectation itself that Ensor was concerned with on many occasions, this painting in particular.
In conclusion, a soiree of jests and costumes may have irritated and even enraged Ensor, but they also fascinated him enough to depict lavishly and artfully such as in The Intrigue. The dynamic between fascination and repulsion is a driving force among Ensor’s oeuvre. As much as intrigues and pretensions of others offended him, he cared enough about these behaviors to document them elaborately and often. Ensor’s work endures as impactful and widely remarked upon partly because of that peculiar relationship with society. As much as Hell may have been other people, he often made himself a part of the intrigue, if only as the fretful spectre in the left-hand corner.