Friday, October 14, 2011

A Painting to Take Home and Love: "The Assassination" by James Ensor

Emil Nolde
Sunflowers in the Windstorm, 1943.
Oil on board, 28 5/8 x 34 5/8 in.
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art
The Columbus Museum of Art is currently showing "Monet to Matisse: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Sirak Collection." In 1991 the Museum acquired this nonpareil private collection of European Modernism that includes among its panoply, the title painters, Degas, Pissaro and Renoir; Nolde, Klimt, and Klee.

"Monet to Matisse" presents Sirak masterpieces that haven't been permanently installed. Like couture models on the runway, these paintings appear to us evenly spaced and well lighted. We do the walking, of course, from one breathtaking beauty to the next. There are so many! It's hard to linger over any one in our anticipation—and sense of obligation, perhaps?—to experience all. The show is a glorious embarrassment of riches.

"From Monet to Matisse," 2011, Columbus Museum of Art"
An embarrassment of riches—a treasure chest of culture—can quickly resolve into a mere democracy of the Unique and the Chosen. This happens too often in museum shows. The institutional method of presentation—the neutral, non-evaluative, evenly-spaced line-up of paintings could be compared to a pharmacist's well-ordered shelves, a library's stately row of reference works, or a drawer of cleanly arrayed specimens in a zoological lab. In an art museum, we've also come to expect lighting that allows us to see with equal clarity every detail of the work displayed. Does the lighting choice make us pseudo-detectives, scientists, or historians, needful of perfect, objective illumination? The spotlighted painting becomes something vulnerable to the visitor's inspection. It's like a specimen or a suspect that we expect to yield something up to our waiting scrutiny.

"From Monet to Matisse," photo by author.
This democratic presentation, with every item displayed like merchandise in the same neutral manner, makes it easy to wander without focus through an art museum's collections of the rarest and finest. Free to choose any chocolate in the box, it's difficult for the browser to decide which is the best—whatever "best" means. Museums help us avoid this by sorting work into galleries that represent periods, or schools,  nationalities or genres (17th century Dutch; photography; Asian art). If we stop to engage with a work, it's because something about it "grabs" us—its colors, subject, composition, or our preexisting interest in the artist.

Kees Van Dongen
Lilacs with Cup of Milk, 1909.
Oil on canvas, 44 3/16 x 36 7/8 in
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art
A display principle unlike the museum's, though, is the personal collector's—collectors like Howard and Babette Sirak, who filled their house with all the art that the CMA now holds in trust for us. A special aspect of "Monet to Matisse," is, in fact, its recognition of this fact, indicated by the inclusion of photographs documenting the collection as it was, in situ at the Sirak's home. Seeing "museum quality" paintings in a domestic setting is a stunning reminder that while the museum houses the work and is constrained by necessities to choose a single, neutral way to present them, we viewers are free to understand the works in our own contexts—to place them in our own "interiors."

The photographs show the rooms of the Sirak home to be high ceilinged and formal, graciously appointed with classic, boxy couches and chairs upholstered in neutral fabrics. Side tables and sideboards hold lamps, vases, and classical sculptures. Decorations are restrained in number and design. Each room provides a visually quiet, simplified setting for the art on the walls.

Sirak bedroom
In the largest rooms, the paintings are hung individually, separated by space on the wall. In more intimate rooms, they are grouped in fours or fives above a bed or couch. Paintings are "museum framed,"  in the same heavy, carved, gilt wood that frame them still at the CMA.

In the photographs of the Sirak home, many artworks are individually lit by oblong lamps suspended in front of them from the top of the frame, casting the most light over the top and the middle of the painting, thus leaving some areas obscure. The light is not always evenly dispersed, nor is is always of that clinical, shadowless quality we have come to expect through our experience in museums.

Another surprise is the distance that furnishings often enforce between viewers and the art. Works aren't hung at ideal eye level. When an easy chair, side table, or sofa intervenes, we would not be doing as we do in the museum and nosing up "to examine the brushwork."

The Siraks were connoisseurs who had to be as well informed as curators to build their collection. Their
acquaintance with the professional world of art was deep. After all, they had all the information they needed to display their works in any way they thought best, probably a combination of the professional and personal. Yet the Siraks and their advisors evidently concluded that their enjoyment of the great works they loved and brought home wouldn't be diminished if the viewer couldn't stand mere inches from every surface, or inspect each painting in lighting like an optics lab's.

Chaim Soutine
Melanie, the Schoolteacher, ca. 1922.
Oil on canvas, 32 1/8 x 18 1/8 in.
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund.
Twenty-first century art museums have extraordinarily complex missions. While they provide social and educational services throughout the community, they also engage in collaborative original research in art history. All this while managing, conserving, and showing their collections.

The one thing that no museum can do, though, is make a viewer focus. It can't make anyone stop in their tracks because of curiosity, wonder, outrage or joy. It's up to viewers, once they've come, to engage.

Paul Klee
Thoughtful, 1928. Watercolor
and graphite on cream paper,
laid down, 15 9/16 x 8 7/8 in.
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak,
the Donors to the Campaign for Enduring Excellence,
and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art
Not that engagement's a walk in the park—or a stroll through the halls of culture on a free Sunday. It's not just a result of excellent lighting or an uncrowded display. Like all relationships, engagement is a matter of  time. Great paintings and drawings, like  people, are to be lived with in order to be appreciated in their depth and subtlety.

At the end of the visit to a museum or gallery, I ask myself which one or two works I'd take home if I could. Which ones have the potential to hold my interest in the long term, or to reveal new meaning and importance as we age together. Which will keep provoking  and providing fresh interpretations of me?

These are not necessarily the questions an art historian would ask. But they suit someone who wants to live with art as an interlocutor or significant experience—not as a thing.

When we visit a well-lit museum where masterworks hang in individual glory, we may certainly appreciate the brush work that text books tell us to look for. But we might want to think about technique domestically, as it were. We might want to get close to a work in the way we do to friends whom we seek to know, who become special parts of our lives, the individuals we've chosen from many. We want to notice "brushwork" not because we are painters, but because technique reveals emotion and thought.
©2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /SABAM, Brussels
James Ensor
Belgian, 1860-1949
The Assassination (L'Assassinat), 1890
Gift of Howard D. and Babette L. Sirak, the Donors to the Campaign for
Enduring Excellence, and the Derby Fund, Columbus Museum of Art

Incorporating favored art works into the "the house" of daily life grants time to digest difficult topics and complex, heavy emotions through the mediation of art. Among the paintings the Siraks displayed in their home is "The Assassination" (1890) by Belgian James Ensor. "The Assassination" shows masked carnival figures in vivid costumes and feathered hats, lined up in a gray room with shadowy graffiti on the wall. Spectators reach through two skylights and marvel at the drama the costumed characters play out in the room. A piper plays on the left and skeleton beats his drum on the right, while the central revelers cut the throat of a screaming man who is held down on a table, bleeding copiously into a dish on the floor. It is a grotesque and fascinating scene that presents, front and center, the gruesome act baldly named in the title. But the scene is cast in layers of irony and mystery, given the assassins' fantastic costumes, the masks; the bare, dirty room; the unknown interest of the spectators, who may be for or against the action, or who may be out-and-out voyeurs. The painting is beautiful, comical, and gorey. It's disturbing, as if Commedia dell'arte met Marat Sade on a canvas.

How could anyone have such a painting as a decoration in a beautiful, orderly house? I want to take "The Assassination" into my house because home is the safe place where we  celebrate or suffer the extremes of life —the events that take months and years to contemplate and digest. At home we have the time and safety to endure, heal, and attempt to digest pain or horror. The events pictured and suggested metaphorically in "The Assassination" are matters no one has ever glanced at and forgotten--neither a tragic event in an 1890 basement; nor assassinations, bombings and murders that occur moment by moment in the 21st century world. But these events are the human condition and must be studied and must remain on our minds in ways we can manage.
Man's inhumanity to man is an eternal theme that no one ever wants to contemplate. In this painting, Ensor puts it in compelling visual form that engages the eye, and dares the mind to reject. "The Assassins" is one of those interlocutors I can be engaged with—learning from, avoiding, reinterpreting, rejecting and applauding—for many years to come.

"The Assassination" installed at the Sirak home
But alas, I am terrible at dusting. And heaven knows that I can't afford to insure the thing, so thanks to the Columbus Museum of Art for handling the complications of owning great art! I want to take "The Assassination" home, but since I can't, I know where to linger among the sirens in the Sirak Collection.

In the democracy of the Unique and Chosen,at the museum, each of us can be a collector, investing ourselves every bit as much as the Siraks and their peers did. It's important for the rest of us to choose works of art to stop and engage with, works that speak (however quietly) to us. The investment of time over several conversation makes you start thinking that you're into something valuable for the long run.


  1. I saw Ensor's "The Assassination" today and was completely taken by it. I think Ensor was capturing the essence of Carnival as it had evolved from a pagan (pre-Christian)celebration of the upcoming planting season (around February)which tied into the sacrifice or blood-letting of the "Sacred King" (Sacred King mythos referenced by Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough). This would explain the capturing of the blood from the victim, the spectators who watch the events unfold, and the piper and drummer who lead the parade with the sacrifice (the fool)in there company.

    Merely speculation.

    1. Fascinating--and very coherent--speculation. I like it. The association with Carnival is terrific. Thanks for your notes; I'll revisit "The Assassination" this week with your thoughts in mind.--Ann

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