Stamps: Elatia Harris13/09/2009
Ensor in Ostend
By Elatia Harris
The dark sky of the typical Flemish hellscape was forsaken by Belgian artist James Ensor in favor of that milky, corrosive all-directional light known to habitues of northern beaches. It’s not less hellish, just hell by the light of day. In Venice, it’s called water light — the reflection of the sky in vast water, doubling the light.
Ostend, the Belgian city on the North Sea where Ensor was born, and which he almost never left, was beachy indeed, but had a tragic past. The Siege of Ostend (1601-1604) left more dead than any battle of the Eighty Years’ War, and was one of the longest sieges in history — a “long carnival of death,” it was called. At its ruinous end, there was for 12 years a negotiated peace that was also the peace of exhaustion between Spain — the technical victor — and the United Provinces.
By Ensor’s time, Ostend was focused on the kind of carnival that ushers in Lent, and it was taken very seriously there, as it was and is elsewhere in Belgium. Below are the “Gilles” of the town of Binche, a medieval city with one of the oldest and most famous carnivals in Europe. The dark green spectacled Gille Binchois, referenced by Ensor again and again, is a figure reaching deeply into history. Now that carnivals have tourist rhythms, and meanings pried well away from their ritual beginnings, it might be useful to look — briefly — at why Carnival was ever important.
It was after all very important to Ensor. The masks that fill his paintings, that stare up from the very floors when not covering the faces of his subjects, are both fiendish and comical, and were entirely familiar to him. Not from a loud seasonal festival but from his childhood home, where his mother operated a souvenir shop out of the ground floor. There, she sold chinoiserie and tourist trinkets, and in the deep winter, masks for the coming Carnival. Many of these found their way upstairs, and stayed there 12 months a year, year after year. The only studio Ensor ever had was the attic room of his boyhood home, higher than most of the rooftops of Ostend, high enough for the water light, with its property of making everything it reached both garish and pale, to enter freely.
Carnival signals a reversal of ordinary times of the year. Starting as early as January, but usually not earlier than a week before Ash Wednesday, there is great pressure to eat up the stored foods of winter. These are rich and meaty foods that, suddenly, do not have to last. They wouldn’t last, in any case, in the slowly warming weather, and Lent, the season of purification, is coming on. Through the early spring, butchers wander the countryside replenishing their stocks, so none of the old year’s animals eaten for meat will escape the feeding frenzy. A possible etymology of the word is “Carne+vale” or “Farewell to meat.” After Carnival, there will be many weeks of porridge.
Elatia Harris is a personal chef and cooking teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She writes a monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily. Her email is elatiaharris(AT)gmail.com.