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It Speaks to Me: Allan Sekula on 'Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889' at the Getty

December 28, 2010 |  3:00 pm


James Ensor is often described by art historians as an artist who disdained the crowd or “mob.” But 10  years ago, Swedish critic Stefan Jonsson studied the context of the painting and turned that argument on its head. Ensor is in fact celebrating a radical egalitarian vision, close to Catholic working-class anarchist and socialist values strongly present in late 19th-century Belgium. Christ enters Brussels on a donkey: Palm Sunday becomes a carnival of masks on the centenary of the French Revolution. What Ensor does is to adapt the sweeping overviews that we find in Brueghel and Bosch, drawing energy from the vitality of peasant culture. In this urban parade, Ensor pushes physiognomic caricature to animal extremes and gives us a more fluid and crazier picture than anything else painted at the time. In 1958, Los Angeles enacted a municipal ordinance prohibiting carnivals on city streets. So there is extra irony in the painting overlooking the city from the Getty hilltop.

-- Allan Sekula, as told to Jori Finkel


James Ensor's "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889," painted in 1888; The J. Paul Getty Museum. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels

Comments () | Archives (9)

There is no definitive interpretation of any painting as ironic as Ensor's. I have read interpretations that this painting mocks Christianity and egalitarianism at the same time.
Sekula is nostalgic for easy fantasies of utopian egalitarianism and of course ironic toward the Getty. He nags us that L.A. is anti-carnival land. Ok. But I find it sadly non-ironic that the politically "aware" artists in L.A. can't speak to the irony of MOCA censorship, this locus of the importance of the contemporary. Has irony become the graveyard of criticism?
I think the censorship at MOCA deserves its own carnival--and I am going to hold my breath until the politically "aware" artists of L.A., some of whom sit on MOCA's board, rigorously turn MOCA into an object of criticism, just like what we do to the past.

busy and ugly

Jesus actually booked a flight to Brussels in 1889, but it was cancelled because of an irregularity in the Aurora Borealis. True story.

Carnaval's are Cathloic celebrations before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras here in New Orleans. they tend to be more "Carnal" in those cities with hot weather and erotic sensuality is the culture, where the church and central authorites hold less sway. Rio and Venice being the two most synonamous, though NOs Fat Tuesday our norte americano version. But we arent Catholic enough for carnaval, as the Latino poulations here dont celebrate it that much, Mexican being more a death culture inherited from the Aztecs and focused on Day of the Dead. And as with Cinco de Mayo vs St Patricks day, we find our own excuses to get drunk and be stupid in public.

And we have parades here instead, you dont think the gay pride parade aren't carnavals I dont know here you have been. We just have traffic issues, cars are our lives and like horses in the old West, and dont close down streets for long. Hollywood Blvd gets the same folks anyway and isnt a transit corridor so it works out. Long Beach's is also off the main roads along And does the dodah parade still exist? NYC has parades practically everyday. Long Beach's simply closes of shoreline dr which it is used to for the grand prix.

And sorry William, but this is a great painting. You know I think one can make creative art with a nail and raw wood, technique is only important in the breadth of language it can provide, though it does take decades of study and discipline leaning our culture and mastering the fundamentals before one get beyond them, things completely lacking in contempt culture, to get to the essence of things. It is the best room in the Getty by far, the Whistler also gorgeous, all of them are and i know they just added another. The room with Cezannes needs to get rid of the weak Impressionists work, only Monet was a great artist, though Pissaro and Renoir did some excellent work at times.

The original Palm Sunday, someting Kiefer did great in a recent work, was an entrance into Jerusalem and a celebration of God and the Messiah, not carnaval at all. Yeshua looks humble and innocent, as the lamb to slaughter, it is far from being a lampoon of him, though certainly can be of the Church that developed in his name, with the mitre hat of a bishop leding the way. As a Pharisee, soon to be disppointed in not getting what they want, and so condemning truth to death. as art academics do today. Always interpreting things how they Want them to be, and not seeing them as they are openly and as but part of humanity, not apart from it.

This is one of the great works of art in LA, after the Watts Towers, Nuestro Pueblo, Our Town. It is purely of the visual language, and so not depending on or limited to the written word, as so many contempt works of illustrative anemic academic "ideas" are today.

art collegia delenda est

It's a fascinating and complex painting. A crowd scene is almost always going to be busy by definition. Ugly? Too easy a dismissal. There are three strong tendencies among those who dislike contemporary art--a conviction that what's wrong with it is academic influence, a belief that art has to be pretty and that it must demonstrate virtuoso technique, preferably of the realist variety. On the first point, conceptual art originated with Marcel Duchamp who was not an academic. The avant garde historically has been contemptuous of the academy in fact. This is not to say that critical thought hasn't been a part of the field of art, but that modernism has been as much a revolt against academic convention as it has been an embrace of it. Recently, MFA programs have become ubiquitous but they tend to be highly variable in their orientation.

As for beauty and virtuosity, although they are clearly not required to produce interesting art, they take a myriad of forms that may go unrecognized by the casual art-hater. The conceptual leap that Duchamp took with The Fountain could be seen as both sublime and virtuosic. One could say the same about the work of Joseph Beuys (who was kicked out of academia, btw) or John Baldessari who taught at UCLA, but could hardly be described as an academic artist. Art, however, is a field that requires some study, like music, literature or film. You can't very well insist on virtuosity while condemning the educational aspect of acquiring it.

This is NOT a contempt painting, it is purely Modern. They are very different almost opposite things. Yin and yang, as both creative art about being as one, and the individuals desires and ego though fashion/entertinment can never be mixed or you get mud. And Duchamp never claimed the fountain to be art, and you are right, he was contemptuous of the academy at that time, and pretty much everything actually. He was pretty mucha sociopath, and so very attactive to todays narcissist students..

The Academy of the later 19th century got destroyed by the post impressionsits and early moderns. With WWII they were completely discredited, and had to find another way to a career, for that is their goal, not truth. Mediocre hacks cannot make a living without one. When critics take precedence, you know you are now literary and decadent, not poetic and musical as Modern art and all true creative art is. From primitive arts through the Minoan to Michelangelo, and on the the few that survived the academy built from Raphael on when oil painting ruined the Italians. They became dark and perverted like caravaggio, though much ahs to do wiht the politcs of that age. Germans much more amenable to dark and expressionist things being form the brooding and angry north. Only the French kept color as harmony, line as melody, and the structure that Cezanne was to broaden and enhance kept it alive.

Academics are Pharisees, holding the truth and power, and then mistaking themselves for prophets and claiming to own and able to teach it. It is a mindset that never goes away. Just mutates, and like all mutations, only a tiny fraction are positive and evolve us as a species. Acadmics hold us back and are about serving the status quo, those already in power, not creating a flow where contructive passions can reach out and unite us as a people. Creative art bonds us as humanity, contempt and academic art splinters for market share and economic survival. The museo/acadmic/gallery complex of today is about selling MFAs for money and so needs to pump up the newest wunderkind as new and great, so more naive and immature children dream and sign on, with their parents money.

This new acadmia was bult of literary ideas, and so took off with Duchamp, Balthus, Picabia, Masson, and Dali as their template. Getting hacks like Albers and those second level Bauhaus types to create an easily taught and money making syllabus. Anyone can illustrate academic teachings, and critics and gallery owners now rule the scene, art is irrelevant, as the wealthy desire. Art has been defanged, impotent, castrated, just how the status quo desires. You are now jesters, fools, bozos to amuse them with absurdist rantings, easily led with the almighty $$$. Begging idiots like the clown king Deitsch to let you in and play.

Acdemic is academic, they loved dumbass lying frontin narcissist Beuys as that was prt of his schtick, when he got popular he jet setted the world, creating a huge carbon footprint to belie the falsehood of his cover of Greenhood. He used it for his own ends, and is incredibly boring and self absorbed. Duchamp may well have been a genius, but not a artist at all after awhile, and went intosolitary playing games, chess, only arising like a groundhog when he wanted money from fools wiling to part with it. He played the game well, he invented it after all, and knew it for what it was. A joke.

Dada's true heir is comedy, an hour and a half of the Daily show, Colbert and Tosh.0 is far more absurd, hilarious intelligent and true than all the academic "projects" in the world since 1960. Great creative art is always by those outside the belly of the beast, you cant see anything when being digested as nutritionless tofu.

art collegia delenda est
Fine art collegs must be destroyed

Keeping all my comments this short-- they seems to get more reaction than when I put thought into it.

William Wray: 1. The readers of Los Angeles will be forever in your debt if you can persuade your colleague Mr. Frazell to adopt that "keeping my comments short" principal. 2. That said, I agree with him that this is a great painting. Sometimes "busy and ugly" is just the ticket.

Believe it or not, most likely not, i am not trying to get a reaction. i am not a troll. Ii simply would like that most lemming like of college grad to learn it is a big world, and asking good questions, not "right" or politically "correct" ones, which dont exist, is how adults get through life. Breaking the absurdist questions of inane and empty meaning that have been spoon fed by the academies to keep their students ignorant and dependant on their dogma is more the direction i am going in. Art is the visual langauge, let it speak.

As a real history major, it is amazing to see the mindless drivel these so called art "historians" have put together for their own benefit. They come up with new theories to get attention for themselves and sell books, not allow the work speak for itself. It is about art, not wordbased employment.One collects all information, as much as possible as more slowly seeps in when we pay atention to the real world. and draw conclusions then put them out there, test them, and get answers that lead to more questions and digging. Answer dont matter, good questions do as there is no final answer, life is not a game show.

The scientific method is applied as much s possible to human records and creations, of events through time. Putting a linear timeline for control is for beginners, life is a cobweb, everything interlaced and a lifetime involved in discovering but part of it, we must be open to new avenues which are just as legit as old ones. Intelligence is seeing connections between things we had thought seperate, for all is truly one.

Not looking to piss people off, but if that is the outcomes, someone needs to break some bad habits. It is not about you people, it is about us.

It is time to put aside childish things. Nowhere more applicable than the infantile artscene.
Short enough?

art collegia delenda est


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