James Ensor's mixed-up, hodgepodge world of light.
The day that Christ comes to Brussels will be magnificent. There will be a huge parade. In fact, it will be a Mardi Gras parade. The streets will be in chaos. Costumed buffoons will march around, one woman in a blue cat suit. Death will show up, wearing a green and black top hat. Some people will carry banners with political slogans. Christ himself will ride a donkey and play it smooth. He is, after all, The Christ.
We know all of this because James Ensor painted it for us in 1888. He called the painting "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889." Unfortunately, it is one of the few major paintings not on view in MoMA's current James Ensor show. That's because the painting stayed in Los Angeles at the Getty Museum. It is too beat up to travel, wouldn't have survived the trip. In a way, that's fitting. "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889" was for many years the painting no one wanted. Ensor's colleagues thought it was weird. The artists' group he helped found, Les XX, considered expelling him after they got a look at it.
Ensor had a gift for self-alienation. His favorite subjects included clowns, skeletons, people in crazy masks, his own cross-dressing, and pickled herring. His parents owned a few seaside curiosity shops in the Belgian town of Ostend where he grew up and later returned to spend the majority of his adult years. He once said, "In my parent's shop, I had seen the wavy lines and the serpentine forms of beautiful seashells; the iridescent lights of mother-of-pearl, the rich tones of delicate chinoiseries."
Being a weirdo, he painted weird things; these delight or disgust, depending on one’s taste. The real value of Ensor comes down to one thing: light. Like so many painters, he was obsessed with it. But that obsession can take as many forms as there are artists. The Impressionists took a roughly deconstructionist approach to light. They wanted to break our perception down in order to show us how it works. They wanted to look at objects and scenes over and over again with subtle shifts in the light.
Ensor wasn't like that (he once called the Impressionists "superficial brushers"). He saw light as an explosion into the world. He saw it as an explosion that creates the world. This explains the biblical imagery in so many of his paintings. They have titles like "Tribulations of Saint Anthony" (1887), "Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise" (1887), and "Moses and the Birds (The Finding of Moses)" (1924). And, as mentioned above, there is the occasional appearance of Christ himself.
Ensor was not a particularly religious man, but he so identified with light as a power, as a force, that he became drawn to the concept of revelation. Indeed, when Jesus Christ reveals himself to the people, he often does so as light. He says, "I am the light." In this, Christ was much like his father who, gazing upon the darkness of the deep, did utter the words, "Let there be light." And there was light. Near the end of his life, Ensor once wrote:
I don't have children, but light is my daughter, light one and indivisible, light bread of the painter, light soft part of the loaf of the painter, light queen of our sense, light, light, illuminate us! Animate us, show us the new routes leading to joy and bliss.
That's probably why Ensor saw the Impressionists as "superficial brushers." They saw objects first, and then looked at what the light did to those objects. The Impressionists respected the light, but they made it secondary. Ensor made light primary. He thought form emerged out of light and not the other way round. That's plain to see when you look at a work like "The Fight of the Angels and Demons (1888)." Colored crayon on paper, it is a study in the primacy of light. The central angel is almost without form. There are only the barest hints of shape and definition. But as you move away from the top center of the drawing, more angels and demons come into definition. The further you get from the blinding light at the center, the more you can discern color, shape, and form.
Or look at "Christ Calming the Storm (1891)." Christ calms the storm by erasing its matter. He stands on the prow of a tiny storm-tossed vessel sending out rays of pure light, which, in the painting, is achieved by scraping away the lines of paint to let streaks of the empty canvas show through. The purity of light and the purity of canvas are one and the same metaphor for Ensor. They are both the condition of possibility for anything else. Ensor could suggest the same thing with secular metaphors. "Fireworks" (1887), is an orgy of red and yellow and orange approaching pure white at the very center. At the outer edges of the painting can be found everything else—air, land, sea, the dark silhouettes of human beings. Just like in "The Fight of the Angels and Demons," the world of form and shape and color comes out of the initial explosion of light in its purity.
Those paintings take light as their primary subject. But Ensor also painted traditional landscapes, interiors, and portraits. The only difference was that he would often throw in a skeleton or two, perhaps a silly hat, maybe some vomiting. He wrote in a letter to the critic Jules Du Jardin about his "preference for the extraordinary and the abnormal always combined with or altered by the study of light." In these paintings, it is as if Ensor has blown up a small corner of "The Fight of the Angels and Demons" in order to focus on the particularities of matter and form. He is basically in the real world, far away from the pure light of the angels. Light is more subtle here, less blinding, helping to create the specifics of mood and character.
Looked at this way, Ensor's focus on abnormality is more about keeping his metaphysics big than a desire to shock or titillate. Light can do anything, make anything. The boundless nature of creation is, to Ensor, a natural outcome of light's infinite possibility. To honor light is therefore also to honor that boundlessness. In one of my favorite drawings, Ensor imagines the entirety of earth's creaturely history as a profusion of clowns. The drawing is called "White and Red Clowns Evolving" (1890). The clowns in the foreground are just learning to walk, and run, and tumble, and fart. In the background are the trappings of civilization: a castle, a ship, a windmill. There is an expansive, cosmic vision here, explicitly madcap. Human beings are demoted, but in a loving way. No one, Ensor suggests, is in any control. It is all but a cacophony of creation.
Thus, his contempt for worldly affairs as he saw them being conducted. His etching "Doctrinaire Nourishment" (1889) is a bit of political fun. Bishops, kings, and generals squat on a wall, shitting on the populace below. Point taken. But more than that it is a rejection of human history in the face of a history of light. At best, we are but the children of light, dancing around in its warmth, learning new tricks.
Ensor learned a thing or two about light and what it had created before he died. He learned that he loved the world in a way different from most of his contemporaries. They looked at the world and saw progress and civilization. Ensor looked and saw an enormous and wonderful stew, a hodgepodge of light-derived multiplicity undulating in ripples out from the original blast of white light. Other painters saw reds, yellows, oranges, and blues. Ensor had his own list of colors; it goes: "pigeon breast, hind belly, balky mule lung, monkey bottom pink, lapis lazuli and malachite, excited nymph thigh, panther pee-pee, high-smelling hen hair, hedgehog in aspic, barrel-maker's brothel, revered rose, monkeybush, turkey-like white, sly violet, page's slipper, immaculate nun spring, unspeakable red, Ensor azure, affected yellow, mummy skull, rock-hard gray, brunt celadon, shop soiled smoke ring." And that was just off the top of his head. As another cosmic thinker once said, "be fruitful and multiply." • 28 July 2009
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.