The Temptation of James Ensor

It’s five years since America’s last big James Ensor show, at MoMA. The Getty Museum’s “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor” can boast of two prizes that eluded MoMA. They are Ensor’s greatest painting and his greatest drawing.

The painting is of course Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889. The Getty owns that 14-foot-wide masterpiece  and deemed it too fragile to travel to New York in 2009. The drawing is The Temptation of Saint Anthony (shown). Lent to the Getty by the Art Institute of Chicago, it is being shown to the public for the first time in 60 years.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1887) is nearly 6 feet high, executed on 51 sheets of paper in pencil, charcoal, pastel, and watercolor. In size and ambition it is more like a contemporary drawing than something from the 19th center. Its subject matter is out of the century of Bosch and Bruegel. The saint is surrounded by an unruly mob of seducers and monsters.

Saint Anthony was shown shortly after its creation at a Les XX exhibition. Ensor missed the next year’s deadline for exhibiting the Getty painting. He kept both in his home, unseen by anyone but visitors. Late in life, when Belgium hailed Ensor a living natural treasure, he covered over some of the naughtier bits of both.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony is rich in mystery. One is why the Getty didn’t outbid Chicago for it. A possible reason is the drawing’s iffy state of preservation. Sheets had peeled from the canvas support. Ensor’s expurgations and restorations, made on a different kind of paper that darkened, complicated things. It took eight years of conservation to treat panels and mount them onto Japan paper for exhibition. Close-up or from a distance, the drawing remains somewhat hard to read.

It’s worth the effort. Saint Anthony is the Wikipedia of sexual perversity in Chicago, or anywhere else. Sensuous baby mamas vie with French fry (frites) peddlers and the top-hatted apostles of 401(k) conformity. The top hats must be the ancestors of Magritte’s bowlers.

A reconfigured exhibition, minus Christ’s Entrywill move to Chicago this November. A book on the Saint Anthony is also due this fall.

(Below, Ensor-themed gear in the Getty’s gift shop.)

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