Several years ago a Jesuit in our community brought back from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a print of a painting by an artist of whom I had never heard: James Ensor. The painting was among his most famous works: "Christ's Entry into Brussels" (above). It was unlike anything I had every seen before--particularly in its almost violent meeting of the sacred with the secular. Still hanging in the reading room of America House, it captivates me still. A fevered vision of the entry of God into the maelstrom of human existence, Ensor effectively translated first-century Jerusalem into 19th-century Brussels.
Now Jon Sweeney, author of several books on the spiritual life, and author of a recent piece in America on Flannery O'Connor in our Culture section, called "Grace and the Grotesque," offers a superb review of a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through Sept. 21) of the art of James Ensor. Offered on our online Culture section, it is especially good at tracing the complicated religious sensibilities of the artist.
Here's Sweeney: "Ensor was obsessed by religious imagery—that much is clear when you look at many of his pictures at once. (The MOMA exhibit is, marvelously, entirely on-line, for those who are far from New York.) He had a wicked sense of humor, much like I’ve always imagined Adam or Job must have had; when you’ve lost a great deal, you laugh, cry, settle or become sardonic. Thank God that when Ensor felt his faith slip away, he took up his brushes.
The etchings and paintings can initially appear to be scandalous, and his contemporaries certainly looked at them that way at times. Yet behind the first impressions is a man struggling to understand something difficult. It reminds me of how a Christian mystic like Bede Griffiths once found a kindred spirit in D. H. Lawrence, feeling that a man couldn’t write about love of any kind so accurately without understanding something about divine love. Similarly, Ensor has always had his followers who embrace the strange vision he brings to things religious."
Read Sweeney's entire piece here in our online Culture section. Also, make sure to watch the special slide show we created of Ensor's art to accompany the review, including some works mentioned by Sweeney. Finally, don't forget to check back regularly for online Culture pieces. And let us know in the comments section what you make of Mr. Ensor's art.