I’ve been spending some time recently looking at the work of painter the Belgian painter James Ensor who lived from 1860 until 1949 in the seaside town of Ostend. It’s not a name that you probably recognize and even seeing the work may not ring a bell for you. I know that it didn’t for me. But the work did excite me, especially given the context of the time in which much of it was created. He began creating his visionary and sometimes macabre world in the 1880’s when the Impressionists were still taking shape. Given the look and subject matter, it came as no surprise that he is considered a major influence on the Surrealists and Expressionists of later generations.
But it was new to me and captivated me at once, especially the piece at the top of this page , Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. It is a massive piece, over 8 foot tall and 14 foot in length. It is a Mardi Gras parade ( Happy Fat Tuesday, by the way– bon temps rouler!) of caricatured figures escorting Christ into modern day Brussels in 1889. It is loud and aggressive and roughly painted, so unlike the prevailing style of the time. Filled with energy, it is a treasure trove for the eye.
Here is the description from the Getty Center in LA where it now resides and is shown:
James Ensor took on religion, politics, and art in this scene of Christ entering contemporary Brussels in a Mardi Gras parade. In response to the French pointillist style, Ensor used palette knives, spatulas, and both ends of his brush to put down patches of colors with expressive freedom. He made several preparatory drawings for the painting, including one in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection.
Ensor’s society is a mob, threatening to trample the viewer–a crude, ugly, chaotic, dehumanized sea of masks, frauds, clowns, andcaricatures. Public, historical, and allegorical figures along with the artist’s family and friends made up the crowd. The haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait: mostly ignored, a precarious, isolated visionmary amidst the herdlike masses of modern society. Ensor’s Christ functioned as a political spokesman for the poor and oppressed–a humble leader of the true religion, in opposition to the atheist social reformer Emile Littré, shown in bishop’s garb holding a drum major’s baton leading on the eager, mindless crowd.
After rejection by Les XX, the artists’ association that Ensor had helped to found, the painting was not exhibited publicly until 1929. Ensor displayed Christ’s Entry prominently in his home and studio throughout his life. With its aggressive, painterly style and merging of the public with the deeply personal, Christ’s Entry was a forerunner of twentieth-century Expressionism.
Looking at this piece sends my mind whirling and makes me want to break free of my comfort zone, to think outside of the box in which I have been comfortably residing for a while now. It rekindles old ideas that have laid dormant, untouched, for many years and makes me wonder if I have the nerve to execute them now. For me, this excitement to expand is true validation of the power and energy of this work.
Now to decide how to use that inspiration…