April 01, 2014

The Getty Museum Presents The Scandalous Art of James Ensor

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Amy Hood
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Getty Communications

Exhibition charts Ensor’s dramatic artistic developments in 1880s and 1890s, when he emerged as a defiant and provocative figure.

June 10 through September 7, 2014

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center


LOS ANGELES – In the early 1880s Belgian painter James Ensor (1860-1949) was working in a progressive naturalist style that was in line with broader artistic trends in Europe. But, by the end of that decade, Ensor’s art had become so satirical, bizarre, and fantastical that even his avant-garde peers had difficulty accepting his work. On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from June 10 through September 7, 2014, The Scandalous Art of James Ensor charts the artist’s astonishing development during this pivotal time.

The exhibition presents more than 100 Ensor paintings and drawings, including 60 from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, along with a rich selection of the artist’s drawings and etchings from the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and several other key lenders. The show culminates in two bewildering masterpieces: the recently restored Temptation of Saint Anthony (1887), an extraordinary oversize drawing on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, and Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888), a megalomaniacal painting that is a cornerstone of the Getty Museum’s collection. 

“Christ’s Entry into Brussels is a major highlight in the Getty Museum’s collection as well as a seminal work of modernism and a landmark in Western art history,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “Built around two of his most exceptional achievements (the other being Chicago’s Temptation of Saint Anthony), The Scandalous Art of James Ensor will be the first major exhibition of the artist’s oeuvre in Los Angeles. Visitors who are used to thinking of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as the most avant-garde aspects of 19th-century art will be amazed by the far more radical and modern-looking creations of this supremely idiosyncratic and iconoclastic artist.”

Attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels from 1877 to 1879, Ensor was schooled in traditional techniques of drawing and painting, but he was quickly drawn to the latest modernist tendencies manifest in the artistic and intellectual circles of the Belgian capital. After returning to his hometown of Ostend, he concentrated on depicting his immediate surroundings in the most advanced naturalist style of the day. Generally quiet and somber in mood, the everyday still-lifes, domestic interiors, figures, and landscapes that he painted in the early 1880s are characterized by their remarkably rough handling of paint and their emphasis on coloristic nuance and the play of light.

These robust early works established Ensor’s reputation. A decisive moment in his career came in 1883 when he became a founding member of the avant-garde artists’ association Les XX (The Twenty). Ensor quickly emerged as the leader of the more radical faction of the group and drew criticism from some for the stylistic daring of his so-called "Impressionist" work. The 1886 exhibition of Les XX in Brussels amounted to an early retrospective for the young Ensor and marked his controversial ascendancy in the art world.

Just as Ensor secured his position as a leader of a new generation of Belgian modernists, however, he saw his preeminence threatened by a number of competing avant-garde trends that Les XX was showcasing in its exhibitions that were quickly drawing admirers – Georges Seurat’s Neo-Impressionism chief among them. Abhorring all manner of artistic schools, Ensor jettisoned his earlier naturalism and dramatically changed direction over the course of the mid-to-late 1880s. Painting yields some ground to drawing and printmaking, and highly inventive subjects replace familiar, everyday ones. Uncanny and diabolical motifs, including his famous masks and skeletons, invade and upset the established order of things, while light comes to be treated as a visionary, symbolic, and expressive agent rather than as a natural, strictly optical phenomenon, as it was being treated by his Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist contemporaries. But even as Ensor’s art took a mystifyingly subjective turn, he also engaged ferociously with the outside world, enlisting caricature and the grotesque to brutally satirize all manner of targets— personal, social, political, and historical.

“To this day, Ensor’s art continues to baffle in its psychological complexity, internal contradictions, and sheer eccentricity,” said exhibition curator Scott Allan. “In a few short years, a breathtaking trajectory took the artist from academic naturalist to something so biting, defiant and bizarre that it still defies categorization and eludes rational analysis.”

Ensor’s work was now filled with sinister masks, buffoonish caricatures, anarchic skeletons, scatological scenes, violence, sexuality, and an array of visionary and mystical motifs. Deeply idiosyncratic and anti-establishment in the extreme, this new approach won little sympathy with Les XX, and by the late 1880s Ensor was in open conflict with the organization. Proudly adopting the mantle of defiant outlier and persecuted genius, he began plotting his two masterworks.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1887)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a mega-drawing (nearly 6 feet by 5 feet) that comprises fifty-one sheets of sketchbook paper joined together in a remarkable accumulation of fantastical, grotesque, and satirical imagery. Kneeling in prayer in the center, Saint Anthony shuts his eyes against the temptations and visions assailing him: comical top-hatted bourgeoisie, a tumultuous orchestra, outrageous scenes of carnage and torture, ancient Oriental deities, idealized nudes, pagan temples rising above the wheels of modern industry, careening trains and balloons caught up in the heavens’ zodiacal disarray, and innumerable monsters and demons. Above the chaos and depravity floats the calm, radiant head of Christ.

Although the myriad details of the drawing are Ensor’s own, the general theme of Saint Anthony’s temptation was a familiar one in art. By the 1880s, Gustave Flaubert’s provocative literary treatment had revitalized the legend, inspiring many artists of Ensor’s generation to repudiate naturalism in favor of a fantastical art of the imagination. The theme also resonated strongly in Belgium – the rich tradition of early Netherlandish art that had found in Saint Anthony an acceptably Christian pretext for all kinds of diabolical inventions. The work was exhibited by Les XX in 1888 and was aggressively dismissed by critics, contributing to Ensor’s marginalization within the Belgian avant-garde.

Remaining in private hands until its 2006 acquisition by the Art Institute of Chicago, The Temptation of Saint Anthony has been absent from all the major Ensor exhibitions in recent decades. Its exhibition at the Getty marks its public debut since undergoing extensive conservation work in Chicago.

Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888)

Holding a satirical mirror up to Belgian society, this unruly, caricatural painting features rude outbursts of raw color and crude, thick accretions of paint. Christ, who bears a resemblance to Ensor himself, rides a donkey into modern Brussels but the crowd is so caught up in the carnival atmosphere that he is barely noticed. Leading the distracted procession down the gigantic boulevard are a bishop as drum major, a military marching band, civic officials and buffoonish representatives of the bourgeoisie. Jostling inscriptions on banners, placards, and flags imitate the sloganeering of official civic and religious events as well as mass political demonstrations. "VIVE JESUS / ROI DE / BRUXLLES"(Long live Jesus, king of Brussels) evokes the celebratory tone of religious processions and triumphal royal entries, while "VIVE LA SOCIALE"(Long live the Social) refers to the burgeoning socialist and workers’ movements. A fierce individualist, Ensor signals his cynical distance from all party politics, and from dogmatic thinking in general, through a placard that reads "FANFARES DOCTRINAIRES / TOUJOURS RÉUSSI"(Dogmatic fanfares always succeed).

Ensor’s indictment of "dogmatic fanfares" was also intended to apply to artistic doctrines that he disdained. Chief among these were the optical theories and systematic "pointillist" technique of Neo-Impressionism, which Les XX had started to champion. Ensor expressed his disdain by including figures vomiting and defecating over a double X on a balcony. The painting in general might even be considered Ensor’s defiantly expressionistic riposte to Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884), which Les XX had exhibited to much fanfare in 1887.

Ensor intended Christ’s Entry into Brussels for the 1889 exhibition of Les XX, but he did not finish it in time and ended up keeping it in his studio. When he moved to a new residence in 1917, the painting took pride of place, above his beloved harmonium. Though it long served as a beacon to admirers making the pilgrimage to Ostend, the painting was not exhibited publicly until 1929, on the occasion of a historic retrospective in Brussels of Ensor’s work.

The massive painting (more than 8 by 14 feet) is too fragile to travel and is always on view in a dedicated gallery in the Getty Museum’s West Pavilion. For The Scandalous Art of James Ensor, the painting will be temporarily moved to the Special Exhibitions pavilion, where it will be shown in the full context of Ensor’s early oeuvre.

This exhibition is co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago and will be on view there from November 23, 2014 through January 25, 2015. The Scandalous Art of James Ensor will be accompanied by a slate of public programs at the Getty Center. For more information about the exhibition and related events, the public may visit A mobile media tour of The Scandalous Art of James Ensor will be available a

Image: The Intrigue, 1911. James Ensor (Belgian 1860-1949). Image courtesy of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. © Lukas-Art in Flanders vzw,photo Hugo Maertens. Artwork © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels.

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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