American Fundamentalists
(Christ's Entry into Washington in 2008)
by Joel Pelletier
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James Ensor's "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889"

Born in a small town in Belgium, a son of antiques and curiosity dealers, James Ensor grew up above an interesting shop full of musical instruments, masks from all over the world, and generally creative junk that fed his creative imagination. Here's a short online bio:

James Ensor
Born 1860, Died 1949; Painter, Draftsman; Belgian

Except for three years studying history and religious painting at the Brussels academy, James Ensor, a Belgian painter, printmaker, and draftsman, lived in Ostend, Belgium, all his life. He began his artistic career as a portrait painter but soon became involved with the avant-garde group Les XX (the Twenty), whose goal was to promote new artistic developments throughout Europe. Although Ensor was considered the group's leader and founder, he had sharp differences of opinion with other group members. Art critics treated the group harshly, and Les XX disbanded after a decade.

In the mid-1880s, Ensor suffered from an ulcer and from a personal crisis: his family forbade him to marry the woman he loved. He returned to painting religious subjects and plunged to the depths of despair when he decided to sell the contents of his studio in the 1890s.

After the turn of the century, Ensor finally won acclaim and respectability. He was knighted and given the title of Baron. The 1908 publication of a book about his life and works confirmed his standing and reputation. In later years, he wrote music, designed sets for ballets, and continued to paint until his death at eighty-nine.

Completed in 1888, "Christ's Entry..." was such a large canvas that he had to tack it to the wall of the attic he worked in, rolling sections of it up to get to others. It was the culmination of dozens of drawings, etchings and studies that explored topics contained in the finished painting, including Jesus, masks, hats, parades and celebrations, and his general diststate for much going on in Art and Politics at that time. He directly ridiculed the powers that be in Brussels, Belgium and France, depicting many (recognizable) people, in a rather grotesque style, making fools of themselves in a Mardi Gras-style celebration, while the mayor looms above in self-importance. His obvious message - even if Jesus again walked the earth, you people would be more interested in how great the event made you rather than the fact that Christ has returned. He was also ridiculing some of the impressionist techniques that were becoming popular in Paris and Brussels, including rough application of large quantities of paint with pallete knives. From a distance the canvas seems very detailed, but this thing is huge - up close, there is very little detail work, but LOTS of thick paint moving around. This was deliberate ugliness and mayhem, and not a technique he used constantly. There is a detailed ethching of the layout, as well as Getty X-rays proving it was meticulously planned and sketched before all the paint started moving around.

Ensor's obsessions, which all artist's need in order to create, included death and immortality, masks and hats, and (as he got more dissapointed with the reaction to his art) persecution and the ridiculing of power. His death and mask/hat obessions manifested themselves in his paintings, considered on the grotesque and primative side (especially for the time), and his persecution complex manifested itself in his depictions of Christ on the cross, usually with him as Christ (he even put his name on the sign above the cross in one of the paintings, and his face for Christ's face in "Christ's Entry...", both in the original and in my update). His concerns about immortality resolved this way: we all die (he did a great sketch entitled "Self Portrait, 1960", where all you see is a skeleton), only Art survives, but as an artist I can live forever through my work (or at least longer than the politicians and blowhards around me). After he entered "Christ's Entry..." into a major art exhibit in Brussels and it was rejected, he got more and more pissed off at everything and everyone, producing paintings, etchings (he felt the plates would survive the longest) and drawings that portrayed politicians, religious leaders and judges (art and law) defecating, vomiting and serving up human body parts in meals (including his own head). The painting was never publicly shown during his lifetime except for two very brief hangings outside of Brussels late in his life, and occaisional private tours for art students.

But, as he aged, inherited his parents house and became a bit (in)famous throughout Europe, it's obvious to me that all he really wanted was to be acccepted and respected. He hid his more grotesque and insulting works, and even covered some of the more insulting phrases he painted on the "Christ's Entry..." canvas, which dominated his study hung above his harmonium. Eventually he was made a Baron by the Belgian royalty, and died a respectable and respected Belgian artist.

The canvas itself went through a few hands after his death, including hanging on the wall of a nightclub, then in a museum in Ensor's home town of Ostend. In 1987 the Getty Museum, then in Malibu, bought it for more than a $1,000,000, pissing off quite a few Belgians who thought it was a national treasure and should remain there. But the Belgian government would not outbid, and allowed the sale, so off it went to Los Angeles, where they did a bang-up job restoring it, put it on a wall, and I saw it. And it changed me.

Thank you, James.

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2004 Joel Pelletier,, email:, web deisgn: the Way Home media

Original text & images protected by copyright law; reproduction without consent prohibited.

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