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Unmasked Man

The J. Paul Getty Museum stages a rare opportunity to view James Ensor in all his glory.

James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890, oil on canvas.

James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890, oil on canvas.

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James Ensor was an anarchist. And like your typical Joe Anarchist, he was antagonistic, political, prone to extremes, a contrarian, and a burner of bridges. But Ensor was also a visionary artist, who could create penetrating works of beauty and astute—if at times crass—works of social commentary. His expressive use of light and his unique and morbid sense of humor have had a substantial influence on modern and contemporary artists. Ensor, who first exhibited his work publicly in 1881, had his share of critics, but managed to show his work consistently in his native Belgium, gaining a good deal of notoriety by the turn of the century. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels, acquired his 1880 painting The Lamp Boy in 1895; he was the subject of major solo exhibitions by 1920, and King Albert named him a Baron in 1929. His successes, however, didn’t quell his desire to label himself a persecuted figure, or to stick it to the status quo—including what he perceived as the status quo of the avant-garde. In fact, it could be conjectured that this attitude was the very thing that drove his work to the radical apex that viewers respond to with such intensity even today.

A new exhibition opening at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles on June 10 titled “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor” (through September 7) chronicles the artist’s work, from the bizarre to the beautiful. It will present over 100 paintings and works on paper, from the Getty’s collection, the Getty Research Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago (where a different version of the show titled “Temptation! The Demons of James Ensor” will open in November) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. The bulk of the show, however—some 60 works—will be lent by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The museum, which is under renovation, has been touring its collection, much to the delight of viewers in Japan, Switzerland, and elsewhere around the world.

Ensor, while attending the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels from 1877–80, learned to execute religious and mythic subjects and was influenced, as were the majority of his peers, by the French Realist painters such as Courbet and Manet. A native of the coastal town Ostend, he set his focus on naturalist scenes—still life, landscapes, and interiors with family and friends—but still even then with an aggression and sense of outré detail that pushed boundaries.

In what seemed like a similar vein, the group Les XX, of which Ensor was an original member, was founded in October of 1883 in an attempt to create an exhibition atmosphere free from the conservatism of the Salon. The decade during which the Belgium-based group showed the work of artists such as Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh at its annual invitational exhibitions was contemporaneous with the most productive and innovative stretch of Ensor’s career. Although Les XX’s initial members—which included Theo van Rysselberghe, Fernand Khnopff, Alfred William “Willy” Finch, Frantz Charlet, and others—chose to run the collective without a clear leader (Brussels lawyer and publisher Octave Maus held the only actual title, serving as secretary), Ensor early on asserted himself as top dog.

However, what began as a domineering role led to disillusion on Ensor’s part by the mid-1880s. The direction in which many of his peers were going was abhorrent to him. As Seurat and Whistler became central influences and Neo-Impressionism came into vogue, Ensor’s personal aesthetic and his tendency to defy the tenor of any unified movement cast him as an outsider. Ensor, though assimilated within this group, was a instinctive non-joiner and felt ill at ease with what he perceived as an increasingly homogeneous atmosphere that resembled a school more than a hotbed for the avant-garde. He took an interest in a wider breadth of influences, such as the French Realists, the traditional Flemish painters, Dutch painters such as Rembrandt and Hals, and Japanese prints by Hokusai. His work became more personal and satirical, primed to point out hypocrisy. “A lot of what he does is in reaction to trends,” says Scott Allen, the lead curator of exhibition and the Getty’s assistant curator of paintings, “Instead of rational and scientific, he was going to be radical and expressionist; instead of hyper-refinement, he was going for the crude, naïve, cartoonish, and grotesque.” And so—a rebel with, at least in his opinion, a cause—he began to act out, both in art and in life.

“He developed a kind of a persecution complex, and he tried to pretend that he had been ostracized,” says Allen, “The idea of the refused, rejected artist was a big thing for him.” One story goes that Ensor was sick one year and missed the entry deadline for Les XX’s exhibition, and upon sending in his work late, asked the group to take down Toulouse Lautrec’s work which had already been installed. Another, finds Ensor miffed at Les XX’s exhibition journal for running an article about Fernand Khnopff and writing a pointed letter insisting Khnopff was getting too much press. In his 1888 painting Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, amidst a cacophonous crowd Ensor depicts a banner with two “X”s being vomited and defecated on.

Ironically enough, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, today considered Ensor’s masterpiece, wasn’t even shown at the 1889 Les XX exhibition. The work, which wasn’t finished in time, remained in Ensor’s studio, not to be publicly shown until 1929. The work, which points fingers in many directions other than at Les XX, shows Christ entering a bustling Brussels that is packed to the gills with revelers looking everywhere but at him. A sign reads: “FANFARES DOCTRINAÏRES / TOUJOURS RÉUSSI” (Dogmatic fanfares always succeed), a sentiment that Ensor—an opponent of party politics and dogmatic thinking in general—firmly disagreed with. In a fit of noise and color, the painting features many of Ensor’s favored motifs—carnivalistic pageantry, debasement of society at large, morbid and grotesque imagery, caricature, and masks. Often referred to as the “painter of masks,” Ensor obscured the facial expressions of the characters he painted as expression of his own opinions on politics, religion, and the artistic milieu of late 19th-century Belgium.

The Getty acquired Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1987, after which it went through a massive conservation process. Despite the fact that it has been a linchpin of the museum’s collection for nearly a quarter of a century, there has never been an exhibition at the Getty that properly contextualized it. Unlike the sweeping Ensor retrospective at MoMA in 2009, “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor” focuses less on scholarly comprehensiveness and more on the opportunity to explore Ensor’s nuances. “We want to introduce people to his full range,” says Allen, “and do justice to his complexity.”

Also on view will be an incredibly complex work on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Executed in 1887, it is made up of of 51 sheets of sketchbook paper fastened together to form a colossal drawing that measures nearly 6 feet by 5 feet. Since The Art Institute of Chicago’s acquisition of the drawing in 2006 from a private owner, it has been absent from all major retrospectives while undergoing massive conservation. The conservators at the Institute had to remove, repair, and remount each of the individual sheets. Ensor himself repaired the delicate sections of the piece throughout his lifetime, often using darker pieces of sketchbook paper that did not match the originals. However, digital color-matching technologies were utilized to improve the color disparities, and for the first time, viewers will be able to gaze upon the drawing with clarity. St. Anthony will be visible, kneeling in prayer, surrounded by all things buffoonish, hedonistic, and obnoxious. With nods to the intricacy and debauchery of works by Brueghel and Bosch, Ensor employs hundreds of figures, creatures, and corrupting forces—even French fries—to tempt the meditating saint.

Author: Sarah E. Fensom | Publish Date: May 2014

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