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Self Portrait with Masks, James Ensor

It is easy for someone like me, who has been studying art for a lifetime, to convince myself that I have an accurate measure of the dimensions of a particular artist’s operative domain. But gratefully that conceit has not resulted in a callow disregard, and I love when my previous views have to be upended and rewritten. That’s how it felt to see the James Ensor exhibit (at the MOMA through September 21) this week.

It wasn’t the paintings that caused me to redraw the Ensor field of influence. In fact I classify many of his more grotesque paintings similarly to the work of Francis Bacon (also on exhibit in New York, at the Met)—historically significant and influential in their scope, but not a match for my aesthetic point of view.

But the drawings and etchings? That’s the side of Ensor that caught me immediately and held me in the show for hours. Without the plasticity of paint to veer into the grotesquery of an acid palette and harsh edged imagery, something emerges from Ensor that is emotional, sensationally powerful and utterly modern in its sensibilities. The line-based, mostly tonal pieces in this show are knock outs—exquisite etchings and small drawings, of which there are many on exhibit. Two drawings in particular stand out. These large pieces, never shown in the US previously, speak to and with his most famous painted masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” (which is too fragile to travel from its safe perch at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.) My favorite drawing, “The Lively and Radiant: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” feels like a sourcebook for many artists that followed including Grosz, Dubuffet and Basquiat.

Holland Cotter’s description is a good one:

“The Lively and Radiant: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” from 1885, is gigantic: nearly seven feet tall and done on a giant piece of paper. The setting is an immense proscenium theater, which is also a city street, with an army of helmeted extras marching toward us, the panicked audience. Signs hang everywhere, advertising art (“Les Impressionistes”), commerce (“Charcutiers de Jerusalem”), politics (“Mouvement Flamand”) and celebration (“Hip hip hurrah”). In the middle of the tumult, like a tiny light, is Jesus riding an ass.

An Ensor scholar could probably crack all the coding. And anyone who lingers over its scrim upon scrim of graphite lines will recognize a formal tour de force. But it’s more than that: it’s an entry point into conceptual and emotional realms with few clear guideposts. The drawing is, after all, absurd and freakish, like Rembrandt’s “Hundred Guilder Print” turned into wallpaper. Is the result in any way a devotional image? A social statement? A take-no-prisoners travesty?

What I love about this piece is its intensity. Yes, that cynical and angry Ensor subject matter is in full display, but it has more to offer than his outrage. The quality of his line, the density of his hand working on paper, the way the visual language transforms human passion and emotion—that is what stopped me in my tracks.

Every photographic image I have seen of this piece, online or in print, is deeply disappointing compared to the original. Its power is furtive. In many ways, that is true of Ensor in general.

More from Cotter’s review:

Although Ensor has long been a fixture in the art canon, he is also a fugitive presence. My guess is that a lot of people know his name without knowing quite who he is. Who can blame them? He’s hard to pin down. Gothic fantasist, political satirist, religious visionary: one minute he’s doing biblical scenes, the next the equivalent of biker tattoos, in a style that veers between crude and dainty…

He will certainly never be popular. He’s as much a visionary as van Gogh and a far more imaginative neurotic than Edvard Munch. But he was inconsistent in matters of style and polish. And he didn’t paint a “Starry Night” or a “Scream.” What he did paint — basically a medieval dance of death choreographed in personal, topical modern terms — most of us don’t relate to or want to hear about, though I suspect some artists do.

The MoMA survey…is an artist’s-artist show. It will appeal to anyone trying to negotiate an insider-outsider perch, anyone obsessed by violence and light, anyone who knows that loony is relative, that art is reality seen from a high small place, that the distance from a joke to a shock to a prayer is short.

To learn more about this show, here are several reviews and articles worth reading in full:

Holland Cotter in the New York Times

Valery Oisteanu in the Brooklyn Rail

Elatia Harris at 3 Quarks Daily

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