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Ensor opens at MOMA, minus the masterpiece

June 22, 2009 | 10:00 am

 Ensor Entry

This week previews begin in New York for “James Ensor,” the Museum of Modern Art's big survey of  the remarkable Belgian visionary (1860-1949) whose work in the1880s anticipated the intense, sometimes even delirious emotionalism of later Expressionist art, which evolved into a dominant strain in the 20th century. The much-anticipated show, on public view June 28 to Sept. 21, is billed as “the first exhibition at an American institution to feature the full range of his media in over 30 years.”

Unfortunately, it won't include Ensor's most important masterpiece — the monumental 1888 canvas “Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889” (above). Those two dates, 1888 and 1889, signify a painting that “records” a miraculous Palm Sunday event set a year into the future. Ensor's prophetic time-travel is just one of many head-turning features of this frantic work, which sublimates every lone individual (including the tiny figure of Jesus riding a donkey in the center) into the swirling mass of the modern mob.

“Christ's Entry” is a textbook classic that a New York Times critic once notoriously claimed had no business being housed in Los Angeles. The J. Paul Getty Museum acquired it — arguably the most important painting in its collection — in October 1987, paying about $10 million to a private foundation in Liechtenstein (such a bargain!). The huge work — more than 8 feet high and 13 feet wide — had been on loan to the Kunsthaus in Zurich since 1983. The “saddened” New York critic lamented that this touchstone of Modern art had left Europe.

Ensor's wild and vulgar mob scene, aside from its brilliant intrinsic qualities, does have an unusual extrinsic connection to its Southern California home. The roiling canvas was the inspiration for Nathanael West's imaginary painting “The Burning of Los Angeles,” which haunted his apocalyptic Depression-era novel of Hollywood life and death, “The Day of the Locust.”

The novel's hapless Everyman was named Homer Simpson ... but let's not get carried away.

Ensor Entry detail Ensor's dissonant canvas is a shockingly aggressive expression of angry disgust. With what? Art historian George Heard Hamilton noted its relationship to what poet Stephane Mallarme had called the “ordinary enemy, the people.” Ensor was the anti-Seurat—the flip side of French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat, painter of that carefully poised scene of sunny bourgeois pleasure, “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte—1884.” Seurat showed his big painting in Brussels with the local avant-garde group Les XX in February 1887. Ensor was enraged. “Christ's Entry” gushed forth.

But the masterpiece won't be traveling to New York, where it was last seen as the linchpin to the 1976 Ensor retrospective uptown at the Guggenheim Museum. According to MOMA's news release, most of the 120 paintings, drawings and prints in its new show will date from the artist’s creative peak, 1880 to the mid-1890s, the period for which the Getty's painting is pivotal. A Getty spokesman said, however, that the big work is too fragile to make the arduous journey.

 The Getty will be lending its small, double-sided Ensor drawing, “Christ's Entry into Jerusalem” and “Christ Bearing the Cross” (1885) to the exhibition, which travels to Paris' Musée d'Orsay in October.

Here's the truly bad news: The show won't travel to Brentwood, to meet up with the mothership.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: James Ensor, “Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889,” 1888, oil on canvas, 99 1/2 x 169 1/2 in.; and detail.

Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum; © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels