The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1888) is one of the paintings that knocked me for a loop the first time I saw it--and I saw it only in reproduction. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had a chance to see the original, in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, though I’d love to someday. I imagine it must be overwhelming.
I still think it’s one of the most disturbing, even frightening, works of art I’ve ever seen. And it continually fascinates me.
James Ensor (1860-1949) was a Belgian painter, and his work both influenced and exemplified Expressionism. He began as a realist painter, but then became fascinated by symbols such as masks, costumes, and skeletons and used them to express the theme of the inhumanity of man.
In this painting, probably his masterpiece, the viewer’s eye is swamped by grotesque faces and death’s-heads and garish colors. The figure of Christ on a donkey is barely visible in the center of the painting, only a large gold halo distinguishing him. The ugly faces of the crowd seem more like predators waiting to attack him than like worshippers. The banner overhead translates to “Long Live Social Progress” and one of the signs as “Never-Failing Fanfares of State Power.”
His paintings reflected his fears and anxieties, and he seemed to identify personally with the sufferings of Christ. Much of his work had been rejected, and this painting itself wasn’t displayed until 1929.
He is still not well known by today’s audiences, but his work had a great influence on expressionist and surrealist artists in the twentieth century. His Swedish contemporary Edvard Munch (best known for “The Scream”) is much better known, though his work and psychological themes are quite similar to those of Ensor.
One modern tribute has been paid to him, though, by They Might Be Giants in their song “Meet James Ensor”.