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

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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