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Christ’s Presence

The Entry of Christ in Brussels

James Ensor (1860-1949). The J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles. 1888.

James Ensor was born in Ostend as James Sidney Edward Ensor in 1860. His father was English, his mother Flemish. His parents kept a sea-coast souvenir shop in the most popular tourist resort of the Belgian North Sea coast. The shop was a curiosa shop in which sea-shells, toys and extravagant items were sold. James grew up in this world of marvel. Ensor’s mother sold extraordinary articles and also masks for the carnival season. The tradition of celebrating Carnival was strong in Flanders and Carnival was an event that was much feasted in the town of Ostend. These may have so much influenced his young imagination that the masks became one of his major themes.

Ensor learned to draw while he was still a young boy and entered first the Academy of Ostend, then – in 1877 – the Academy of Brussels. He left the latter academy in 1880 and painted as a professional painter, exhibiting his canvases. In 1883 he was a member of a group of Symbolist artists founded in Brussels, called ‘Les Vingt’ or ‘Les XX’, the Twenty. Leader and secretary of this group was the Belgian lawyer and art amateur Octave Maus. In 1888 Ensor met a woman who served for a time in the shop of his mother, the daughter of a hotel keeper of Ostend. Ensor would never marry her, but Augusta Boogaerts would stay his friend their entire life. In that same year 1888 he painted the ‘Entry of Jesus Christ in Brussels’. He was then twenty-eight years old, so that the picture is an early work in his career. At that age however Ensor had already found his main themes and later he would only re-iterate and develop further on these themes.

Ensor travelled to and visited Paris several times. He learned to know many painters, among which the Dutch artist Jan Toorop and the Belgian Walloon painter Félicien Rops. In 1893 the group ‘Les XX’ dissolved but Octave Maus immediately founded a new group, entitled ‘la Libre Esthétique’. Ensor joined also this group. He continued to paint and gradually aversion for his work turned into recognition by the Belgian magistrates. Collectors such as the Lambotte family bought his paintings. From about 1905 on, Ensor lived back in Ostend. He painted, composed music and he wrote. His works were exhibited in known galleries. In 1929 King Albert II granted him the title of Baron and he also received the full naturalisation for Belgium. In 1930, a monument was erected in his home town in his honour and the former contestant was now integral part of the Belgian bourgeoisie. He died in November of 1949 at Ostend.

In his first period, James Ensor painted in a rather Expressionist way still lives and scenes of interiors, and also many portraits. His palette was dark, his subject gloomy. He used many shades of grey, dark brown colours on his canvases. His first masks date from about 1863, when he was only twenty-three years old. This theme would one of his major ideas as subject for his pictures. Gradually, he applied brighter and brighter colours, mainly from 1885 on, so that colour would become one of his main means of expression.

Ensor’s interest in religious themes must be sought more in his sketches than in his oil paintings, but became important from 1886 on. He made drawings of the Pietà motif; he painted crucifixion scenes. By 1887 his sombre colours had almost entirely disappeared and he made works that might have joined the Impressionists if it were not for their strong expressive character. His first oil painting of the crucified Christ dates from 1888, the year of the ‘Entry of Christ into Brussels’ too. That same year he started to paint many pictures with figures and carnival masks. In around 1890 masks were his favourite subject. He painted a very Expressionist Ecce Home scene in 1891 and one might wonder what place and to what extent religion influenced his state of mind at that time. In this remarkable painting, Ensor showed only the face of Jesus Christ, drawn completely in red and black, a face contorted with pain and horror, a face of blood with a terrible sneer on the mouth. In 1891 he made a painting of Jesus Christ appeasing the waves of the Sea during a storm. This would become a recurring theme for Ensor. He also painted ‘Christ in Limbo’, Christ descending to Hell, after his Resurrection, to deliver the souls of the pure from limbo. The period of 1888 to 1893 marked years during which carnival masks are dominant in his expression of humankind. Yet, he also painted many still lives, religious scenes, and occasionally also discrete pictures with the Virgin Mary. He painted masks until way in the 1930’s.

Many of Ensor’s paintings suggest that he looked at himself as a lonely man in a strange and utterly non-understood outer world. He was a man surrounded by masks and skeletons. Ensor thus expressed the incomprehension of his universe, his impossibility to come to true communication with other human beings. Other men and women were mere hallucinations, phantoms and ghosts and clowns that walked in the streets with death and destruction on their faces. Ensor faced a profound alienation of his environment, of the cities he lived in. Yet, he had many friends and lived in Ostend snugly with members of his family in the same house. Ensor’s oeuvre was entirely expressionist, hallucinatory, fantastic, outrageous and caricatural, delivered in irony and pessimism with extreme critic on his fellow-men.

There is a strong tradition of ‘Joyous Entries’ in Belgium, mostly in Flemish cities but not exclusively. It was usual for medieval rulers of Belgium to enter a city and take possession of the town in a formal way. In ancient times, the keys of the gates of the cities were presented to the rulers as a token of submission; and in return the princes, dukes and kings signed and confirmed the privileges of the town. In Brussels in particular, the entry of Emperor Charles V in the town, an event which happened in the sixteenth century, is re-enacted every year till this day in a festive procession called the ‘Ommeganck’. The people that form the procession are mostly member of the noble families of Belgium, and so is the person who re-incarnates Charles V. James Ensor painted such an Ommeganck in garish colours, with a crowd of clowns and buffoons, puppets and carnival masks, skeletons and obese figures, which accompany Christ who rides a donkey.

The New Testament tells how Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem accompanied by a large crowd. Christ does not make his entry into Jerusalem in Ensor’s painting, but in Brussels. The crowd is a grotesque wave of phantoms and ghastly figures that fill the boulevard. The crowd advances on the viewer and fills the canvas.

The structure of the painting is simple. James Ensor rarely sought a pre-devised scheme of lines. Here, he painted row after row of ghost figures to arrive at a level, way behind, in which there is a layer in which Jesus is alone and rides calmly, blessing the crowd. The rows advance led by a bishop who is represented as a cheer leader, clad in the red colour which is the symbol not only of cardinals but also of the socialist movement of the Belgian society of the moment. It is a loathsome, gruesome circus of people that Ensor shows. There are masks of fleshless skulls, naïve Pierrot masks, black-hatted sorcerers, catlike masks, and medieval characters. All the people wear masks of carnival but their masks are their faces.

James Ensor was thus surrounded in his world not by live people but by caricatures instead of people, by horrible and repulsive alien hosts with which he could not communicate, and who defied communication, because they were so different from him and so one-sided. Ensor typified people in absurd categories and these only lived. Ensor thus showed a Belgian society of anxiety and hypocrisy. Jesus Christ is God, but the cheerleader though wearing the mitre of a bishop, is an overweight political, socialist leader. The crowd passes under a red banner on which is written ‘Vive la Sociale’. A general precedes the musicians. He wears medals all over his breast so that the medals make a puppet soldier of him. The mayor, accompanied by clowns who must represent his assistants or ‘échevins’, as they are called in Belgium, all elected by the people, stand on a dais and acclaims the mob. The mayor is tall and thin and he wears a leader’s staff. The throng of people brandish banners. A man grasps and lowers himself down a flag on which is written ‘Les XX’. Painters thus climb on advancing artistic movements, probably only in order to gain some status from the group.

Jesus Christ greets the people, but he seems in particular to bless a skeleton. James Ensor may have shown himself a Jesus, addressing skeletons of creatures that do not understand his art and provide no substance of understanding to him. The same kinds of personages follow Jesus. A man holds high the queue of Jesus’s donkey and another clown, wearing a hat coloured in Belgium’s national colours of red, yellow and black, leads the second wave. The sinister, grotesque wave walks to the tunes of absurd music. The smirking faces laugh and the figures dance forward to no end.

James Ensor showed in ‘The Entry of Christ in Brussels’ about the most pessimistic view an artist can have of his fellow-men. James’ Ensor contempt did not please his contemporaries, not even his fellow-artists of ‘Les Vingt’, and not the buyers of his work. The picture stayed in his home until 1929 and was only then exhibited for the first time. The painting said not so much about the Belgian society of the times, as about James Ensor and about how artists like him thought about the incomprehension of society about their art. Times were changing. Art, said Ensor, does not necessarily have to show pretty things. Art can show the absurd and the ugly and still be art. Artists before him had given this message of course. Caravaggio and Goya had done the same long before Ensor, but Ensor was one of the first to take this message as far as one could possibly do in representation. It is ironical that this same society acclaimed Ensor only a few years after he made this work and that Ensor easily indulged in the honour and acclaim he received form the Belgian society he represented in such a sinister way.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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