The masked work of James Ensor

Self-Portrait With Masks - 1899 James Ensor

“The mask traditionally functioned as a complex carrier of meaning. For Ensor, it seems also to have allowed for boundaries to be blurred, and for certain questions to be raised? “ - Richard Kalina – Looking for James Ensor

The purpose of a mask is to hide identity while adding a new one. We wear masks for special occasions, Halloween, and to commit crimes. According to this article, James Ensor used them to both hide the identity and to place a deep symbol into his art.

Ensor’s mom owned a shop that sold masks. Growing up around masks must have given him an appreciation of the power they hold. He knew real people existed behind the mask, but by wearing them gained new identities. He used this ability to switch persona as metaphors in his photos.

The Astonishment of the Wouse - 1889 James Ensor

In the painting, The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse, Ensor presents common characters (e.g., an old woman, a helper,etc.) that are part of every day life and hides them behind masks. By masking these characters, the familiarity of the character to the viewer is loss because the mask makes us see a hidden side of them. We wonder if the mask represents what the wearer wants us to think of them. The mask may also represent what they are trying to hide from us, but comes out when we try to see humans as being more complex than initial appearances allow.

We all wear masks that present us as different people in different circumstances. At work, home, church, public meetings, on the bus, etc., we put on disguises to protect ourselves from our secrets. In Bruce Springsteen’s song Brilliant Disguise, he first sings of the disguises worn by his wife:

So tell me who I see 
when I look in your eyes 
Is that you baby 
or just a brilliant disguise 
Later in the song he confesses that he wears a brilliant disguise as well: 
So when you look at me 
you better look hard and look twice 
Is that me baby 
or just a brilliant disguise… 
… God have mercy on the man 
Who doubts what he's sure of.

Maybe Ensor used masks to show that we all wear them to pretend to be something else. I think he also painted them to show that while we think the mask looks one way to us, those looking at us see something much different, something unintended and unwanted.


  1. Karl, are you fascinated with disguises and masks. Didn't you post on the topic before? I found the lyrics for the Springsteen song, and they are fascinating, not only about masks but also about trust. Great video and I love the artist!

  2. Carla, Masks do fascinate me. They interest me in a similar way that Las Vegas does. It is part of my fascination with created realities, disguises, facades, and other ways we cover or create a new surface to hide or obscure who we are. Some make us a new identity, others accentuate or improve the one we have. I wrote a good bit about facades on March 8th.

    I wrote a bit about Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise" and how it applied to my life in my old blog as well. I will republish it here at a future date.


So,what are you thinking about?