A Face in the Crowd

JAMES ENSOR AT MOMA

In 1885 the Belgian artist James Ensor began a series of six drawings of the life of Christ. He titled them The Aureoles of Christ or the Sensibilities of Light. With their erased and re-worked surfaces, these pieces are magnificent explorations of the endless possibilities of the medium. Two of them, The Lively and Radiant: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem and The Rising: Christ Shown to the People, are enormous concoctions of black and brown crayon, watercolor, and pasted fragments of paper, where lines weave dense, web-like forms that abruptly break and open into the compositional space. In their angular arrangement and dramatic lighting, these drawings owe something to Rembrandt. Their emotional impact is visceral, projecting physical agony, abandonment, and loss. Ensor's Christ is both an innocent devoured by the world, and a rebel (projecting light, a symbol of redemption) who resists and transforms evil with his sacrifice. The entire series employs the artist's didactic and satirical talents to depict the confrontation between innocence and human vileness found in “the kingdom of this world.”

Regarded as a significant painter and printmaker in his lifetime, James Ensor (1860-1949) has been something of a casualty in the history of modern art, which has been dominated by abstract painting. His figurative paintings and graphics are charged with both narrative and social engagement—qualities that put his work at a disadvantage in the art world of the second half of the last century. The current exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art (through September 20) places Ensor in his proper context, allowing the public to view more than one hundred paintings, prints, and drawings. It should not be missed.

Ensor's body of work is in some ways antimodern; his paintings, drawings, and prints critique and reject a cosmopolitan, industrialized, and comfortably bourgeois world that leads to alienation, exploitation, and conformity. He yearned for a “pauvre Belgique,” united by familial and communal bonds maintained by a humanist solidarity. His art had less in common with that of his contemporaries than with the Flemish tradition of Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Brueghel, whose carnivalesque imagination and moral tone he shared. When he said, “All the rules, all the canons of art vomit death like their bronze brethren,” he was expressing his disdain for both modernist sophistication and conventional European academicism. Ensor's stance was paradoxical: he was a modernist who critiqued modernity; he yearned for a vanished past amidst a culture in ruins.

Born in the seaside resort of Ostend, he grew up in an unstable family. His father struggled with business failures and alcoholism. Ensor's mother's family made a living running a small shop that sold beach articles: seashells, coral, masks, and hats. This environment of trinkets and objects that possessed grotesque and fantastic qualities profoundly shaped his work. “I was even more fascinated by our dark and frightening attic, full of horrible spiders, curios, seashells, plants and animals from distant seas, beautiful chinaware, rust and blood-colored effects, red and white coral, monkeys, turtles, dried mermaids, and stuffed chinamen,” he wrote.

Ensor began exhibiting in 1881; his last exhibition was a retrospective presented at the National Gallery in London three years before his death at the age of eighty-nine. He lived through the rise of the Belgian Workers Party (with whom he sympathized), the prolabor encyclical Rerum novarum, and the brutal colonization of the Congo by the Belgian monarchy. He survived both world wars and the German occupation. He was made a baron and inducted into Belgium's Legion of Honor.

Although Ensor's masterpiece, The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (a mural-size work of 1888, which was publicly exhibited for the first time in 1929), was not lent to MoMA by the Getty Museum, the exhibition contains an 1898 etching version of the work. The print lacks the scale and color of the painting, but it is as disturbing and prophetic as the original. Depicting a mob of masked and unmasked figures (politicians of every persuasion, clerics, soldiers, workers, and military bands), the picture is an ill-humored and discordant affair. In the middle ground Christ enters the city in seeming triumph; yet closer observation reveals a solitary figure riding a frail donkey while blessing a vulgar and ignorant populace. The Son of Man is the odd man out stuck in the midst of a farcical parade, where the crowd is using him for their performance. For Ensor, religion at the end of the nineteenth century was little more than a hollow cultural habit.

Ensor's early pictorial efforts, such as the wonderful The Oyster Eater and the tragic The Drunkards, emerge out of the realist tradition of both Belgian and Dutch painting. They are large, bold pictures that synthesize naturalism with the broken color of impressionism. By 1883 he had abandoned a descriptive visual vocabulary in favor of an expressive and symbolic one. The Scandalized Masks of that year, with its sense of mystery and absurdity, marked an important departure. Masks, simultaneously concealing and revealing, would become a constant theme. During the second half of the 1880s, his palette became lighter, and a focus on the quality and nature of light-both literal and symbolic-developed. At times his colors (green and yellow, for example) became acidic, just as the texture of his pictures acquired heaviness and roughness. His mature works (1885-1900), in which he moved from a realistic technique to a preoccupation with the grotesque and bizarre, possess a deliberate overload of both color and texture. There are strong canvases in the exhibition from this period, such as Ensor with a Flowered Hat, Tribulations of Saint Anthony, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, My Portrait Surrounded by Masks, and the late The Banquet of the Starved. These are disturbing works in which exaggerated drawing and intense colors depict a world where horror and humor coexist. Tribulations of Saint Anthony, for example, is a powerful Hieronymus Bosch-like painting, where the hermit is both tempted and tormented by a bizarre gathering of soldiers and women, angels and balloonists, demons and frogs. All of the figures, except the saint himself, are painted with the colors and textures of excrement and blood; the world is a violent, eschatological place.

Too many of these later paintings are repetitive and mannered, however. The best of the exhibition is to be found in the drawings and prints. The virtuoso etching The Cathedral is exceptional. We see a compressed mob of grotesqueries gathered in front of an obsessively detailed Gothic building. The Bad Doctors and The Deadly Sins Dominated by Death are simple and almost comic-book-like. Flinching and unforgiving satires of social and religious issues abound, from the anticlerical Doctrinaire Nourishment to the antimilitary Massacre of the Ostend Fishermen.

The exhibition is abundant with self-portraits in a variety of media; some are homages (to Rubens, etc.), others “performances” of the artist's role as well as sarcastic self-reflections. The magnificent Self-Portrait with Masks presents the artist among fifty-two masks that range in expression from idiotic to terrifying. The texture of the entire picture has been built up with a palette knife, with intense reds playing off white, gray, black, and pale blue hues. The eyes of the masks are either empty or staring into space. Ensor's self-portrait stands out; his face is identifiable high up within the pile of masks, and he stares coldly and seriously at us. He wears a bright red flowered hat “borrowed” from a Rubens self-portrait (c. 1609-10). His beard and mustache are elegantly combed. He is in society, but not of it; the critic hiding among the multitudes. With his stare he reminds us of the folly and hypocrisy of the world.

Published in the 2009-08-14 issue: 
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Alejandro Anreus is professor of art history and Latin American/Latino Studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

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