James Ensor @ The Getty Museum


The Skeleton Painter , James Ensor

The Skeleton Painter, James Ensor

Last Sunday, during a trip to The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, I caught their special exhibit entitled The Scandalous Art of James Ensor. Ensor is known as "the painter of masks" and true to that designation, the exhibition focuses on a time in Ensor's career when he pivoted away from naturalistic painting and toward more creative and disturbing imagery. Ensor's "scandalous" work depicts society imagery - parties, religious processions, theater goers, and art studios - with a disturbing twist; the heads of the figures are replaced with skulls or faces are distorted into melting masks.

The Intrigue  , James Ensor

The Intrigue, James Ensor

The wall text at the Getty gives the impression that Ensor painted with a removed and critical eye. His work is described in terms of satire, performance, and the avant-garde. However, the paintings and drawings struck me as more personal than critical, disturbing rather than satiric, and grotesque rather than avant-garde. Of course the paintings reflect both Ensor's personal demons and those he saw in the society around him, but in the end I came away with the feeling that I had just viewed the private musings of a disenfranchised and brooding man, with whom I couldn’t easily identify.

The Central Garde  n  at the Getty, by artist Robert Irwin

The Central Garden at the Getty, by artist Robert Irwin

As I exited the Ensor exhibit and emerged into the Southern California sun, I was a struck by the strange companion the exhibit made of the museum itself. The Getty is composed up of a dozen white buildings separated by marble courtyards and elaborate gardens. Between the pristine architecture and manicured lawn you get the impression that you have arrived at the pearly, if antiseptic, gates of heaven. But the society that occupied the museum was something different entirely. The interior and exterior spaces were congested with jaded tourists, rambunctious children, and fifty-yard-long concession lines. Meanwhile, the slight breeze on the one-hundred degree day caused abandoned food wrappers and gift shop bags to swirl along the ground of the outdoor cafe and spill out into the courtyards littering the marble floors. The juxtaposition of the aspirational architecture and the reality of a tourist trap museum suddenly seemed grotesque. And Ensor’s too-personal melancholic imagery began to make more sense. Perhaps I can identify with Ensor’s work after all.