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Smart Phones and Brussels

James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels 1889

On Friday, I took a bus (to avoid the $20 parking fee) to the Getty Center to view the latest exhibitions and to reacquaint myself with the permanent collection. Unfortunately, the museum was mobbed. Time and time again, I was prevented from seeing a painting because some oversized bozo was stationed in front finger f—ing his smart phone, totally oblivious to the crowds and the magnificent artworks around him.

They reminded me of one of my favorite paintings in the Getty’s permanent collection, James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels 1889. Look closely at the crowd entering with Christ who appears (with golden halo) in the center of the painting and slightly to the left. Now imagine each member of the crowd with a smart phone and not giving a tinker’s damn about anything but his or her Facebook or Instagram or whatever.

The Getty’s notes on the painting confirm my opinion:

James Ensor took on religion, politics, and art in this scene of Christ entering contemporary Brussels in a Mardi Gras parade. In response to the French pointillist style, Ensor used palette knives, spatulas, and both ends of his brush to put down patches of colors with expressive freedom. He made several preparatory drawings for the painting, including one in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection.

Ensor’s society is a mob, threatening to trample the viewer–a crude, ugly, chaotic, dehumanized sea of masks, frauds, clowns, and caricatures. Public, historical, and allegorical figures, along with the artist’s family and friends, make up the crowd. The haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait: mostly ignored, a precarious, isolated visionary amidst the herdlike masses of modern society. Ensor’s Christ functions as a political spokesman for the poor and oppressed–a humble leader of the true religion, in opposition to the atheist social reformer Emile Littré, shown in bishop’s garb holding a drum major’s baton and leading on the eager, mindless crowd.

After rejection by Les XX, the artists’ association that Ensor had helped to found, the painting was not exhibited publicly until 1929. Ensor displayed Christ’s Entry prominently in his home and studio throughout his life. With its aggressive, painterly style and merging of the public with the deeply personal, Christ’s Entry was a forerunner of twentieth-century Expressionism.

I managed to enjoy my visit despite the crowds. I guess it was Spring Break for too many people, so I should have known better.