The Belgian Symbolist James Ensor macabre vision of the Second Coming, 1888’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 is generally considered his masterpiece and with its densely crowded canvas, vivid use of colour and grotesque caricatures clearly pointed the way towards a new art: Expressionism.
With all the distorted clarity of a nightmare Ensor portrays a heaving mob that includes skeletons, clowns and masked figures drunkenly await the entrance of the Messiah. Several banners line the processional route, however the leering faces in the foreground suggest that Christ’s entry will not be a triumphant one but will turn into a second Calvary.
Paul Delvaux the obsessive painter of nudes was briefly associated with the Surrealist movement in the mid 1930’s and the dream-world presented in his canvases shows the influence of De Chirico (the originator of so many Surrealist careers) and his fellow Belgian Rene Magritte in the use of a dry academic painterly style and bizarre juxtapositions. However his vision of a silent Belle Epoque city frozen in time and filled with statuesque nudes reclining or walking down colonnaded streets past skeletons or bowler hatted men is uniquely his own and produces a vague sensation of unease and anxiety.
Edward Burra frequently exhibited with the Surrealists during the late 30’s, including at the sensational International Surrealist Exhibition held at London’s New Burlington Galleries, which famously featured Salvador Dali attempting to give a lecture in an old-fashioned deep sea diving-suit while holding two hounds on a leash and having to be rescued from suffocation and death by the poet David Gascoyne.
Burra’s John Deth is a lurid phantasmagoria that displays in full the strong macabre streak that ran through his paintings. Skeletons were a frequent motif, sometimes used to comic effect, sometimes with darker intent.
Conrad Aiken was the American poet who was the mentor to the novelist Malcolm Lowry, whose masterpiece Under the Volcano tell the story of Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British Consul to Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town, on the Day of the Dead. Filled with occult allusions and symbolism, the hallucinatory Under the Volcano is one of the great modernist novels of the 20th century.