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In years past, Ferrebeekeeper has celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a series of short essays about Irish folklore. We started with leprechauns and worked our way through the doom of Oisin (who could have had eternal youth and endless love), the Sluagh (evil spirits who ride the clouds), the Leannán Sídhe, the Fear Gorta, and the great Gaelic flounder (which is not even a thing, but which should be). You should read that story about Oisin–it’s really plaintive!

Anyway, this year we are going to take a break from the disquieting beauty of Irish folklore to showcase a category of obscene Medieval sculpture, the “Sheela na gig”, a sort of stylized stone hag who is portrayed holding open her legs and her cavernous womanhood (a word which I am primly using as a euphemism for “vagina”). These grotesque female figures appear throughout Northwest Europe, but are most prevalent in Ireland. Nobody knows who carved them or why. Their name doesn’t even have a coherent meaning in Gaelic. Yet they are clearly connected to fertility and to the great mother goddess of the Earth. As you can imagine, they are the focus of furious speculation by religious and cultural mavens of all sorts. However no definitive answer about the nature of the figures has ever been found…nor is such an answer ever likely to be forthcoming.

Sheela na gigs were mostly carved between the 9th and 12th centuries (AD) and seem to be affiliated with churches, portals, and Romanesque structures. Although they are located throughout central and western Europe, the greatest number of Sheela na gig figurines are located across Ireland (101 locations) and Britain (45 locations). To the prudish Victorian mind they were regarded as symbols for warding off devils (which would be affrighted by such naked womanhood?), however more modern interpretations empower the sculptures with feminist trappings of matriarchy, self-awareness, sexual strength, and shame-free corporeality. Perhaps the stuffy Victorian misogynists were the devils who needed to be scared off! Other scholars think of the Sheela na gig figurines in the vein of the pig with the bagpipes or the “Cista Mystica“–which is to say a once widespread figure which had a well-understood meaning which has become lost in the mists of long centuries (it is easy to imagine future generations looking at Hawaiian punch man, Bazooka Joe, or the Starbucks logo with similar bafflement).

Hmmm…

Some scholars have theorized a connection with Normans–and hence with Vikings–but I see little of Freya in the images (which seem more connected to prehistoric “Venus” statues).

It is probably ill-advised to opine about such a controversial figure, but if I were forced to guess, I would suspect that the Sheela na gig is a symbol of the generative power of Mother Nature (or the godess Gaia) which is so overt as to barely be a symbol. All humans were born through bloody expulsion. We do not come into the world through a magic emerald cabbage or a portal of light. Whatever else the Sheela na gig betokens, it is a reminder of this shared heritage (which you would think would be impossible to forget…until you talk to some of the people out there).

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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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