The Art of James Ensor

Several years ago a Jesuit in our community brought back from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a print of a painting by an artist of whom I had never heard: James Ensor.  The painting was among his most famous works: "Christ's Entry into Brussels" (above).  It was unlike anything I had every seen before--particularly in its almost violent meeting of the sacred with the secular.  Still hanging in the reading room of America House, it captivates me still.  A fevered vision of the entry of God into the maelstrom of human existence, Ensor effectively translated first-century Jerusalem into 19th-century Brussels. 

Now Jon Sweeney, author of several books on the spiritual life, and author of a recent piece in America on Flannery O'Connor in our Culture section, called "Grace and the Grotesque," offers a superb review of a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through Sept. 21) of the art of James Ensor.  Offered on our online Culture section, it is especially good at tracing the complicated religious sensibilities of the artist.  

Here's Sweeney: "Ensor was obsessed by religious imagery—that much is clear when you look at many of his pictures at once. (The MOMA exhibit is, marvelously, entirely on-line, for those who are far from New York.) He had a wicked sense of humor, much like I’ve always imagined Adam or Job must have had; when you’ve lost a great deal, you laugh, cry, settle or become sardonic. Thank God that when Ensor felt his faith slip away, he took up his brushes.

The etchings and paintings can initially appear to be scandalous, and his contemporaries certainly looked at them that way at times. Yet behind the first impressions is a man struggling to understand something difficult. It reminds me of how a Christian mystic like Bede Griffiths once found a kindred spirit in D. H. Lawrence, feeling that a man couldn’t write about love of any kind so accurately without understanding something about divine love. Similarly, Ensor has always had his followers who embrace the strange vision he brings to things religious."

Read Sweeney's entire piece here in our online Culture section.  Also, make sure to watch the special slide show we created of Ensor's art to accompany the review, including some works mentioned by Sweeney.  Finally, don't forget to check back regularly for online Culture pieces.  And let us know in the comments section what you make of Mr. Ensor's art.

7 years 10 months ago
"Ensor effectively translated first-century Jerusalem into 19th-century Brussels." Okay, fair enough, fairly believable; and how does he translate the next set of events in Jesus' life?
7 years 10 months ago
Father Martin, I appreciate your bringing to my attention the essay by Ron Sweeney and the MOMA site which I just finished viewing.  Several years ago, I saw the painting "Christ's Entry into Brussels" at LACMA and was stunned by it.  Stunned by the macabre quality of it, the Mardi Gras festival atmosphere.  Masks and grotesqueries and all.  I had forgotten the artist's name but did recognize the image in your article.  It is unforgettable.  I'm now trying to sort through my feelings and reactions toward his art.  Sadness that in his soul's struggle, he lost out to atheism, lost Christ, the One he so identified with and yes, pitied.  Was he pitying himself? He does show in a mocking, satirical way the cruelty of humans to other humans and I have experienced that raising mentally disabled children who have been (and are) ridiculed and abused in public.  How does one deal with cruelty , what does one do with the anger , how does one teach children to value themselves?  Mocking the mockers?  I don't think so.  Instead, being so blessed with faith in Jesus Christ, we look to him on his Cross , expierience his love  through his life, words and sacraments and trust in his providence.
Lots to ponder, Father Jim.  Sometimes the artists are as interesting as their works!Thanks for bringing this one to our attention.
7 years 9 months ago

Of course, some of us have heard of Ensore because of the "They Might Be Giants Song":

"Meet James Ensor
Belgium's famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand
Appreciate the man!"

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