The Getty Museum in Los Angeles presents The Scandalous Art of James Ensor from June 10 through August 31, 2014. The 19th century Belgian artist, James Ensor was an important figure in the avant-garde, helped shape Expressionism, and knew precisely how to depict his society like no one else.
The Getty exhibit features 60 Ensor paintings, drawings and etchings, with an emphasis on his avant-garde work, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. It follows James Ensor’s development in the decade capping this masterpiece, a satirical condemnation of 19th century Belgian society.
James Ensor was considered not only a painter, but a draughtsman and printmaker. He tackled many artistic styles but began his career as a portrait painter. In 1883, he became involved with the avant-garde movement, Les XX, whose intent was to encourage new artistic advancements in Europe. In reaction to pointillism, he favored spatulas and palette knives, and employed both brush ends to express himself. However, Ensor became embroiled with other members of the artistic circle due to differing opinions, and the movement received harsh criticism from critics, so after a decade, Les XX parted ways.
Working in an attic studio in the resort town of Ostend, the artist created innumerable paintings over the duration of his career that included everything from still life to tabloid cartoons and biblical subjects. Ensor struggled in the mid-1880s with health and personal issues, and by the late 1880s, Ensor’s portrayals became more fantastical and monstrous. He eventually returned to painting religious subject matter.
The self-confident artist painted Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 during a time of political provocation. This particular work is considered one of the most extraordinary, innovative and mystifying paintings created in 19th century Europe, and in his native Belgium. It rivals other 19th century paintings for sheer size, the boldness of the subject matter and Ensor’s social commentary.
Viewers will notice the complexity of its execution, the artist’s brash interpretation and his intentionally unpolished technique. In almost garish colors, the canvas features a Mardi Gras parade with masked figures, clowns and an insignificant rendering of Christ mounted on a donkey arriving in Brussels. In this painting, Ensor challenged society and the viewer with the absence of perspective, identities are hidden behind masks, and he uses his own features for Christ’s face.
His analysis of society is a mob scene with rough and hideous characters. It is a chaotic scene filled with caricatures, historical, public and allegorical figures. In the midst of all the commotion, is a haloed Christ, more as a “political spokesman for the poor and oppressed,” which is in opposition to Emile Littre, the atheist social reformer whom Ensor depicted in bishop’s attire, leading the eager, mindless crowd.
His etchings, from the late 1890s, take the chaos one-step further. They possess a more macabre component, seizing inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe stories. The etchings feature imagery as skeletons, throngs of swelling crowds and sinister masks as seen in his King Pest (1895) and Hop-Frog’s Revenge (1898).
In this allegorical etching, Ensor portrays the victimized court jester, a maimed dwarf Hop-Frog who seeks retribution against a merciless king and his ministers. He shackles the men together, suspending them from a chandelier at a masquerade ball, and sets them alight.
It was not until the turn of the century that James Ensor was finally recognized and respected. In 1902, the artist, by royal decree, was made a knight of the Order of Leopold, and given the title of Baron. Later on in life, Baron James Ensor wrote musical scores, designed stage sets for ballets, and continued painting until his death at 89.
The Belgian artist cannot be defined by one artistic style. His work exhibits aspects of symbolism, realism and expressionism. However, the current Getty exhibition in Los Angeles clearly illustrates that there was a scandalous element in some of the works of James Ensor.
By: Dawn Levesque
The Getty Museum