James Ensor – “in the mid-1880s, some bomb went off in his brain”

What I find most intriguing in studying works of art is learning about the masterminds behind them, what drives them to create, what inspires them, why they do what they do. I hearing art historians speak who are knowledgeable about an artist’s personality and the little quirks that make them interesting and often times, really cooky and weird! Sometimes I’m not even drawn to an artist’s work, but how their personality is reflected in it is enough to peak my interest. So is the case with Mr. Ensor:

Here he is doin’ his thang in his studio in 1896-ish

And here he is being weird:

A collection of his lithographs are currently showing in the museum where I work,  I love them, I think they’re funny. I think he would be a highly entertaining person to sit down and have dinner with back in the 1800s. This painter, printmaker, and draftsman was born in Belgium in the mid 19th century. I had heard about him, but never quite had the chance to study his work. Ensor was obsessed with himself, death, mortality, masks, and hats, among other things. His work also included social commentary and political references, but we won’t get into that in this blog posting.

First, let’s start off with some self portraits: This might be my favorite:

Self Portrait with Masks, 1899

Here’s one that may resemble a photograph that you’ve seen earlier in this blog posting:

Skeleton Artist in his Studio, 1896

Here’s a quick rundown on Ensor:

His full name is “James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor” and he was a very influential in surrealism and impressionism. This painting, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels from 1889 (which I believe is currently at the Getty museum in LA) was SUPER scandalous back in the day… for obvious reasons. This is Ensor’s “provocative reinterpretation of the story of Christ entering Jerusalem.” (via)

This painting wasn’t even exhibited until 40 years after it was made, and was a culmination of different drawing and paintings that he had done before.

Here’s a small image first so that you can get a sense of scale:

I’m not an expert on Ensor, but I suspect the criticisms may have something to do with the fact that we were used to seeing scenes of Christ depicted a little differently.

Exhibit A:

Flagellation de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ – The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1880 by William Bouguereau

This painting is dated at 8 years before Ensor’s painting

(…Also, can we take a second to talk about how beautiful this painting is:)

Okay so jumping back to Ensor’s painting. Ensor took a scene from the life of Christ and plopped it into a contemporary Mardi Gras setting in Brussels. It’s a very expressive painting and he achieved it’s results through using spatulas, pallet knives, and other methods and tools. Now, Ensor was an atheist, despite that fact that his work often features religious scenes and iconography. Here’s the kicker, many times in his work, he includes Jesus as a representation himself… sort of in the form of a self portrait. The Getty’s description of the work, which you can scope out here, describes Ensor’s Christ like this:

“The haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait: mostly ignored, a precarious, isolated visionary amidst the herdlike masses of modern society”

I can’t help but make a connection between this and one of today’s hottest hip hop stars. I’mma let him interrupt right quick:

This is Kanye’s Rolling Stone’s  ’06 cover based on his 2004  hit,  Jesus Walks (which I personally can’t stand, but that’s another blog posting) from the album College Dropout

Here’s a little refresher for those of you who may have forgotten about this controversal jam, although I’m not sure how you could:

Musical, performing, and visual artists have been doing this whole “projecting themselves in the image of Jesus” thing for hundreds of years and have been battling criticism with it for just as long…and then making bank! College Dropout ended up selling millions of copies… over 2.5 million, to be more specific.

If you wanna kick it even MORE old school, let’s take it back to 1500 with Albrecht.

Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe, 1500 by Albrecht Dürer,

To me, these works of art bring a new meaning to the verse:

Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

It’s interesting to see what happens when man portrays himself in the image of Christ, and I’ve barely brushed the surface of this phenomenon in this posting.

Cool, Controversial, Offensive? What do you think?!

Read some more about him here: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1910970,00.html

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One response to “James Ensor – “in the mid-1880s, some bomb went off in his brain”

  1. Yes, the insights into the brains of artists and the details of their lives are, for me, just as good if not better than some of their work. I might have this wrong, but I believe that I heard at a lecture at some modern art gallery that in the late 1800s in Paris, 27 artists–including Picasso and Modigliani–lived together in one apartment which had one–yes, one–toilet for them all. That is not really an insight into the mind of an artist, but it is the sort of stuff that carries me a long way. Cheers. Thanks for your blogging. :):) — Tim Ruane

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