Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889
Stefan Jonsson discusses the social vision presented by Ensor in The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 :
”The Entry thus operates on the same level as mass psychology, staging a conflict between reason and madness, order and revolt. In [Gustave] LeBon’s* staging, this conflict is resolved by organizing society into two homogeneous blocs; the mad masses are tamed by the suggestive power of individual leaders. Ensor, by contrast, eradicates this division altogether. His figures drift in some new social medium where the conceptions of hypnosis, mental contagion, and suggestibility find no anchorage. For LeBon, the crowd is structured by one collective soul; for Ensor, it is structured by countless lateral relations of difference and similarity. For LeBon, the crowd is homogenous; for Ensor, it is heterogeneous. Where LeBon turns all the faces in the crowd toward the leader, Ensor has them fan out in a space without center. Where LeBon sees the member of the crowd as an automaton, Ensor sees him or her as an ensemble of social tensions. If we want a definition of the visual grammar of The Entry, we can say that the painting removes vertical relations of subordination and replaces them with horizontal relations of juxtaposition.
The formal organization of The Entry thus suggests a social worldview contrary to that of mass psychology and affiliated with the radical and regenerative force of the carnival and caricature. It subverts hierarchies, tears down authorities, dissolves identities, violates order, breaks decorum, and laughs at dignitaries. Indeed, Ensor’s depiction destroys the entire system of representation and power, not only the aesthetic system that determines how society should be represented but also the political system that decides by whom it should be represented. Through this work of destruction, Ensor delivers his figures to the ambiguous freedom of a world without fixed positions of power and hence without distinct social identities.”
*Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) was a French sociologist whose best known work, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896; La psychologie des foules) was widely read and influential.
Stefan Jonsson, “Society Degree Zero: Christ, Communism, and the Madness of Crowds in the Art of James Ensor,” Representations, no. 75 (Summer 2001): 12.
Patricia G. Berman considers ambiguity an essential part of Ensor’s political message:
“If there is a political ‘program’ to Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, it is likely akin to [Elisée] Reclus’s notion of the freedom of the individual as a moral imperative, and [Oscar] Wilde’s belief that artists have the responsibility to open the space for that freedom. In the tradition of Bosch, Bruegel, and Goya, Ensor created this painting as an attempt to lampoon those institutions that confused authority with greater human laws. Ensor’s representation of Jesus intervenes in the guise of that moral presence in an extraordinarily sweeping critique of Belgian officialdom. Yet his ambiguous figure of Jesus (who is just as likely to be an actor in a Carnival parade, or a marginalized artist, as the Christian savior) provides one of the many paradoxes in the composition that saves it from becoming programmatic. Like the multiple contradictory celebrations that are quoted in this painting (Carnival, a political rally, a joyous entry, an imperial spectacle), the unknown street, and the unidentifiable genre (Cartoon? Caricature? History painting?), Ensor’s Jesus contains the suggestion and not the narration of meaning.”
Patricia G. Berman, James Ensor, Christ’s “Entry into Brussels in 1889” (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004), p. 90.
Painting conservators at the Getty discovered that Ensor’s technical approach to painting The Entry of Christ into Brussels was traditional, despite scholarly claims to the contrary:
“As the conservation treatment progressed, and as a variety of technical discoveries were made, it became increasingly evident that the picture has, in fact, firm foundations within decidedly traditional painting methods….”
“Ensor painted his monumental work on a classic support – a single, seamless piece of fine Belgian linen. The canvas was prepared with a traditional lead-white priming. The composition was then laid out in great detail by means of an extensive underdrawing that provided a solid underlying structure for the painting.”
”Ensor’s palette…was actually quite straightforward: he favored the use of pure colors and only rarely resorted to mixtures of any type….It is important to note that all of the pigments used were standard artist’s pigments of the period. Media analysis suggested that these were straightforward oil colors.”
Mark Leonard and Louise Lippincott, “James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889: Technical Analysis, Restoration, and Reinterpretation,” Art Journal, vol. 54, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 18, 19, 22.
Related Subjects by Other Artists and Writers
Honoré Balzac, “Jesus Chirst in Flanders” (short story, 1831)
Johann Peter Krafft, The Triumphal Entry of Franz I After the Peace of Paris, 16 June 1814, 1833-37