An Exacting Revenge
James Ensor and Christ's Entry into Brussels
By S. Amanda Davis

From Gadfly May 1999


"I have joyously shut myself up in the solitary domain where the mask holds sway, wholly made up of violence, light and brilliance."
—James Ensor

Around the turn of the century, a few malcontent painters grew frustrated with Impressionism's prettiness. Not content with painting ballet dancers or shimmers of light on water, they sought to uncover a more personal, emotionally expressive art. Anguish, anxiety and trauma were their motivating forces, and they attacked each canvas as if it were a battleground for their own personal conflicts. James Ensor, the unhappy and reclusive Belgian, was one of the first fin de siécle painters to break away from Impressionism. His scorching canvases first sent shock waves into the community by 1882, about the same time Vincent van Gogh decided to devote himself to art.

Born in 1860 in Ostend, a fishing village on the Belgian coast, Ensor spent his childhood in his parents' souvenir shop, surrounded by seashells, puppets and carnival masks. From the time he began to paint at the age of sixteen, these curios appeared in his artwork like fetishes. Ensor had an exceptional talent and was exhibiting moody Impressionist seascapes and interior scenes in the Brussels Salon by the age of twenty-one. A year later, the prestigious Paris Salon accepted two of his paintings. In spite of these early successes with Impressionism, he began to develop an original, highly dramatic style—aggressive brushwork, patches of pure color and scenes of puppets and enigmatic figures wearing carnival masks. But these new works met with hostile reactions, and the about-face in his fortune was stunning. In the following years, most of his canvases were rejected, and a pile of contemptuous reviews steadily mounted.

In matters of art, Ensor was quick to react and take insult. The French word for an ultrasensitive soul like Ensor is écorché vif, which literally means skinned alive. The violence implicit in the word is carried over from the days when France flayed its heretics alive. And that's certainly how Ensor saw himself—as victim and martyr for his art. He had extraordinary gifts, a precocious technique and a singular vision. But his peculiar genius was misunderstood. True to his nature, he reacted to these snubs and dismissals with a vigor that bordered on rage. And in only a few years, he produced a prodigious body of work, among them his masterpiece, Christ's Entry into Brussels, painted when he was only twenty-eight.

At eight-and-a-half by fourteen feet, Christ's Entry into Brussels is an enormous and brilliant indictment of humanity. The scene is a street in contemporary Brussels at the height of a Mardi Gras parade. The monumental canvas is densely packed with row on row of marching figures that swell toward the viewer like a wave. At the head of this sea of sneering faces, a parade master marches with his baton. A cast of thousands agitates in the background: figures playing musical instruments and carrying political banners, a well-fed judge, a decorated general and a bishop alongside courtesans, church ladies and a scattering of demons. Even Death makes an appearance, but only a peasant who stops in the middle of the frenzy to gawk, bug-eyed and open-mouthed, notices his presence.

The title character comes into focus near the center of the canvas. Ensor's Jesus is more self-portrait than divine figure. Small, surrounded by light and riding a donkey, he is the archetypal outcast, the symbol of truth executed by the masses. Ensor, who saw himself as society's victim, identified with this tragic character making his way toward crucifixion through the jeering crowd.

The painting itself seems to reverberate with the riotous sounds of the day—the tumult of bodies in motion, the blare of band music and the piercing shrieks of raucous laughter. In Christ's Entry, Ensor captures the carnival of humanity, made up of frauds, buffoons and misfits, full of ugliness, yet exhilarating in its turbulence and tumbling chaos. In the spirit of Brueghel and Hieronymous Bosch, the painting offers a haunting vision of the world where ordinary and supernatural events converge. At the same time, Christ's Entry is a manifesto of modern art and Ensor's most powerful expression of contempt for the society that rejected him.

When Ensor submitted Christ's Entry to Les XX, an artists' society he helped establish, the members were so offended they voted for his expulsion. This only fueled his sense of persecution, and for the next few years he painted one incendiary canvas after another. But he had spent his greatest creative energies in the swirls of garish colors and slashes of ugly humanity spilling forth in Christ's Entry, and no other work would equal its heroic outrage. Indeed, his later denunciations seem peevish and naughty in comparison. In Dangerous Cooks, 1896, Ensor's head is served on a platter to a roomful of ravenous critics; this time, Ensor casts himself in the role of John the Baptist. And as if he were determined to defy anyone to exhibit his work, he painted Doctrinal Alimentation, 1889, in which the Belgian king defecates on his subjects while figures of church, state and military look on.

Eventually, he drew the shades in the souvenir shop and retired to a sitting room where he received visitors and played the harmonium in the shadow of his masterpiece (Christ's Entry would hang in Ensor's home until 1929 when it was exhibited). And though he continued to paint, the furious momentum that once drove his genius had long since dissipated. As time passed, James Ensor aged into a beautiful old man. In photographs he looks like Father Christmas—his smiling face encircled by a halo of pale hair, the demonic puppets that once twisted across his canvases now sitting quietly in a corner.

By the end of his life, he was to become a distinguished gentleman, championed by writers, critics and scholars. He was made baron by the King of Belgium (a distant relative of the monarch mocked in Doctrinal Alimentation) and was heralded as a forerunner of the twentieth century's great art movements, Expressionism and Surrealism. Outliving all his detractors and earning the fame and respect that had escaped him in his youth, James Ensor got his ultimate revenge.

His greatest artistic triumph, Christ's Entry into Brussels now hangs in a gallery in the Getty Museum. The setting is one of the most breathtaking locations for a museum, perched high in the Santa Monica foothills, with a vista of Los Angeles below and the glittering Pacific Ocean beyond. Christ's Entry's journey from obscurity to a premiere spot in the Getty is compelling proof that James Ensor, whose solitary life was rounded by spite, has taken his place at the front of the crowd.