Marlowe, of course. Caravaggio, of course. Gauguin. Rimbaud. Rilke and Brecht; Dylan Thomas and Robert Lowell; Alexander Alekhine and Robert J. Fischer; Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Indifferent to moral convention, some artists live as if they are beyond good and evil, and we who live by the light of their art sometimes accept their claim. We may not credit it as doctrine, but we take it in by eye. The artists’ biographies may ask us to disregard and stop reading, but we keep looking at the pictures.
Of course biography will sometimes direct us away from itself to matters of life and death. Handsome bad Byron had a weight problem throughout his short life, and if he had only lived long enough (nags biography, poking us with censorious finger) he might have developed into a double of his obese, card-playing king, George IV. A book about those later years, supplemented with additional pictures of the former poet, might disenchant. Nevertheless, Don Juan would still be standing by to dive into the biography and recover the life. Its comic rhymes would have the agility to keep meaning, nevertheless! what they sang for the first time over the tomb of their creator’s flesh. In words and music, they would be one more performance of life self-creating.
Two centuries after Byron and one month after the American presidential election of 2016, Sotheby’s posted news in France of a rarely seen painting created in the nineteenth century. The artist was the Christian allegorist James Ensor, he of the masks, and the election marked a change of aspect for the United States. What was to create the change turned out to be a rolypoly daubed orange, but Ensor had titled his composition Squelette arrêtant masques and Sotheby’s catalog took note of what it called its chromatic qualities.
By 2019, state and church in the United States were beginning to slap images of Rolypoly over the previously polychrome icons of the Christian trinity. By then too, however, the Christian masks of James Ensor had begun to receive and transmit again. As they filled with light for almost the first time since their creation in 1891, something they had concealed behind themselves began intimating itself once again against a re-illumined sky. Almost ready now to reveal itself above its Ensor-blue surface, it seems to be summoning the creatures within the image frame and us other creatures outside it to open our eyes and understand. Its name is Squelette, it wears the colorful uniform and livid mask of death, and it comes wavelength by wavelength into our lives to say that we can enter and see the full spectrum of ourselves only by unmasking.
For on the breast of one of the masked is the image’s warning to us not to delay the unmasking: a death-symbol ace of spades, overlaid with a mask of rolypoly-color. No longer the black of pious mourning and its “sure and certain hope,” it threatens the masked with a sentence of eternity in livid terminal bronzer.