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Belgian Bad Boy: “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor”

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“Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” (1888), by James Ensor. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. ⓒ2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

“Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” (1888), by James Ensor. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. ⓒ2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

There were, indeed, a few years when Ensor’s work was “scandalous,” starting in the latter 1880s when his pictures pushed aside his early influences (Courbet and Manet, for instance) and tipped over into the seismic, where he soon resembled something of a demented Dr. Seuss.

The exhibition in its final days at the Getty includes over 100 works, with more than 60 pieces on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. It doesn’t mark any particular anniversary that I’m aware of, unlike the rather massive retrospective presented in the Belgian capital in 1999 to mark the half-centenary of Ensor’s death. That was quite a visual banquet – which I actually attended – although it lacked a couple of key pieces, one of which we take for granted in L.A. – “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1880” (1888) – because it’s been a centerpiece of the Getty’s permanent collection since the late 1980s.

James Ensor, born in 1860, grew up in Ostend, a resort town on the rather limited – only 40 miles long – Belgian coast. His parents – dad was English, mom Belgian – operated a curiosity shop for visitors, probably not unlike those along the boardwalk in Redondo Beach. Now you know where most of the carnival masks came from that were slowly to assume such prominence in his “mature” work.

“The Intrigue” (1890), by James Ensor. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. ⓒLukas-Art in Flanders vzw, photo Hugo Maertens. ⓒ2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

“The Intrigue” (1890), by James Ensor. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. ⓒLukas-Art in Flanders vzw, photo Hugo Maertens. ⓒ2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

Brussels, by train, is only an hour from Ostend, if that, but going there was a life-changer for Ensor. In 1883 he was a founding member of Les XX, the Twenty, but by the end of the decade his colleagues were uneasy with his zaniness (he seems to have been a proto-Dadaist). From then on we might call him an Impressionist on speed, and his lavish, aggressive use of pigments does bear comparison with the immediacy of the canvases by Van Gogh.

After a few years in Brussels, and now convinced of his own importance as an artist, Ensor returned to Ostend. In short, as Michel Draguet has written, “Ensor transformed his marginality into a necessary precondition for the affirmation of his genius.”

Not to try and pigeonhole him, but Ensor was quite an eccentric character with a healthy neurosis that fueled (and undercut) his abundant humor and sarcasm. He used the latter to ward off his fears – of women, of death, of bourgeois society. And, despite his political snipes, he wasn’t really an activist: His calling was as an artist, not as a political agitator.

However, his social and political commentary snakes through his best work, perhaps none so blatant as his “Doctrinal Nourishment” (1889/1895) with its accretions of excretions – the powers that be defecating on the masses. Which may have you asking, What’s changed?

“Doctrinal Nourishment” (1889/1895), by James Ensor. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ⓒ2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

“Doctrinal Nourishment” (1889/1895), by James Ensor. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ⓒ2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

When King Leopold II in 1886 asked Ensor what his paintings meant, the artist replied that they weren’t paintings but rather symphonies.

If so, the music cooled down after the turn of the century. Ensor’s best work can be bracketed between 1880 and 1900. Problem was, he lived until 1949.

The other key work that’s important to this exhibition is “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (1887), which is considered a “mega-drawing” because the work stands nearly six feet high and is comprised of 51 sheets of paper. It’s filled with chaotic decorative energy, a free-for-all of graphite, charcoal, pastel, colored pencil, and watercolor. It’s a fragile work, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, and recently restored.

“The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1887), by James Ensor. The Art Institute of Chicago. ⓒ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

“The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1887), by James Ensor. The Art Institute of Chicago. ⓒ
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels

A painting that truly is a symphony (and thus validating what Ensor told the king) – although it post-dates Leopold’s inquiry – is of course “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889.” It would have been the highlight of the Belgian show 15 years ago but for the fact that it’s too frail to travel. However, for the current exhibition it did manage to hobble over to the Special Exhibitions Pavilion from its suite in the West Pavilion. After all, it wanted very much to hang out with old friends.

The Scandalous Art of James Ensor is on view through Sept. 7 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in the Getty Center at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free; parking $15. Call (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu.

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