Getty Museum Presents The Art of James Ensor

. April 3, 2014

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Additional information is available at www.getty.edu.

Category: Fine Art

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