Object Lesson: When James Ensor turned to skeletons and satire

Object Lesson: When James Ensor turned to skeletons and satire
This important painting marks a moment in which James Ensor went from quiet Belgian portraitist to biting social satirist: "Skeleton Looking at Chinoiserie," from 1885 and about 1888-1890. (Hugo Maertens / Collection King Baudouin Foundation / Getty Museum)

Of the more than 100 paintings, etchings and drawings in the Getty Museum's sprawling exhibition devoted to 19th century painter James Ensor, "Skeleton Looking at Chinoiserie" is the sort of work that you just might miss if you cruise through the galleries a little too quickly. It's small, with muddy colors. In a show filled with bright, reverberating, practically hallucinatory works, it comes off as dim.

"The interior setting kind of evokes traditional genre paintings -- Dutch interiors," says Getty paintings curator Scott Allan, who organized the show. "But it's painted in a rough way. It almost looks unresolved or incomplete."


In fact, Ensor worked on the painting at various points in the mid- to late 1880s.

But the skeleton, who gazes earnestly at what appears to be a sheaf of Japanese prints, marks an important moment for Ensor, an artist who went from painting moody seascapes and portraits to producing almost garish, scathingly satirical works in which bare bottoms rain poop from the sky.

"The painting illustrates a transitional moment for him," Allan says. "In the late 1880s, he had all of these paintings that he had started painting earlier in the decade, then he revised them."

When Ensor first painted "Skeleton Looking at Chinoiserie" it contained a human figure.

"There have been technical examinations of this picture," Allan says. "They were able to determine that there was originally a live figure underneath the skull, at least evidence of a head. Ensor actively skeletized the scene."

At this moment, he says: "He was turning away from the early naturalist mode and moving into more satirical, moralizing work."

In the 1880s, Ensor was a well-ensconced member of the Belgian bourgeoisie. His family owned a shop from which he earned a comfortable living. He had achieved some renown as a painter for the ways in which he employed color and light and for the realistic manner in which he portrayed individuals. (Even if at times he was described, critically, as a "mason" for the ways in which he layered on thick layers of paint.)

But at some point in the 1880s, a switch flipped. And Ensor began to make highly politicized -- though always humorous -- works that satirized the government, the Catholic Church, the bourgeoisie, the art establishment and even the art avant-garde.

There were images of the wealthy sitting casually amid poopy pestilence, skeletons descending from the heavens to pursue their human prey, and a legendary over-sized canvas called "Christ's Entry Into Brussels," from 1889, that shows a chaotic carnival swallowing the figure of Christ, who seems almost an afterthought amid all the over-the-top pageantry. (This truly epic latter work is in the Getty's collection and it has pride of place in the show.)

Allan says there is a whole cottage industry devoted to divining what exactly made Ensor shift from painting traditional scenery to creating works that so mischievously and relentlessly attacked the powers that be. As in any artist's work, it was likely a confluence of things.

In 1887, the artist lost both his father and his grandmother -- significant emotional milestones. But, as Allan points out, the shift didn't just lie in his personal life. There were a lot of other things going on, too.

Belgium was experiencing a decade of political instability. The secularized left was having it out with the religious right. (Sound familiar?) Belgium was pillaging the Congo. And suffragists were pushing for the right to vote for all men, whether or not they were property owners. In 1880s Belgium, only 10% of men were allowed to vote. You can forget about the women.

The late 19th century brought a lot of upheaval to the art world, too. In France, in the 1860s, artists had banded together to create the Salon des Refuses as a way of protesting the conservatism of the Academy. Artists regularly attacked affectation and hypocrisy. In Belgium, they banded together in an another outsider group called Les XX ("The Twenty"), of which Ensor was a part.

"In the second half of the 1880s, a lot of artists are frustrated with and over naturalism," Allan says. "They're trying to push into more subjective and fantastical directions."


All of this comes on the heels of the work of people such as satirist Honore Daumier, who regularly skewered the powerful in his illustrations, and Francisco de Goya, whose "Caprichos" series took on the gassiness of the powerful. (Like Ensor, Goya loved giving high society the metaphorical finger -- and he loved depicting a good fart.)

These factors, along with many others, came together in the 1880s and led to a seismic shift in Ensor's work. He painted skeletons engaged in all manner of activity and put people in grotesque masks, often influenced by those he'd seen in Japanese prints.

"Rather than something that conceals, it becomes something that reveals," says Allan. "He reveals something of absurdity and stupidity. He distorts the features to satirize."

All of this makes Ensor's work feel terrifically contemporary: the raw humor, the comic book color palette, the off-the-charts levels of disdain for every kind of authority. If he were alive today, he could have ruled Comic-Con.

Moreover, Ensor's practice sketches of masks, which I've embedded above, feel like studies for proto-emoji. (Which makes me think that if the Getty really wanted to create a cool gift shop item, they'd start with some downloadable Ensor emoticons.)

This all began with paintings such as the one at top: a skeleton, sitting quietly in a comfortable domestic setting, reminding us that even in the most mundane activities, we aren't free of ourselves.

"The Scandalous Art of James Ensor" is on view at the Getty Center through Sept. 7, 1200 Getty Center Drive, West Los Angeles, On Aug. 7 at 7 p.m., a group of contemporary artists -- Marc Trujillo, Tom Knechtel and Laurie Lipton -- will discuss the ways in which Ensor's work has inspired them.

Twitter: @cmonstah