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Ensor's Graphic Modernism at the Getty Center, May 2-July 30, 2006

April 25, 2006

LOS ANGELES—The first Los Angeles exhibition devoted to James Ensor (Belgian, 1860–1949), Ensor’s Graphic Modernism, will be presented at the Getty Center, May 2–July 30, 2006.  It will bring together Ensor’s painted masterpiece Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888), one of the most important pictures in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s permanent collection, with his greatest prints to provide a deeper understanding of the artist’s multifaceted modernity, his mastery of painting, and his talent as one of the best printmakers in history.

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 is among the most significant early modern paintings in the United States. The monumental work, measuring over 14 feet wide and eight feet tall, is too fragile to travel and is permanently installed at the Getty Museum. This exhibition therefore provides a rare opportunity to see the painting alongside important examples of the artist’s prolific experiments in printmaking.  Featured are 33 prints created between 1886 and 1904 that have seldom been displayed in public, drawn from the private collections of Dr. and Mrs. Richard A. Simms and Thomas and Lore Firman, as well as from the special collections of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute.  Among them is an interpretive print Ensor made after his painting, in which he transfers the work’s enormous complexity and substance into an etching just 24.8 x 35.5 cm (9¾ x 14 in.) in size. The exhibition reveals how Ensor employed etching to explore the themes, iconography, and style of his painted masterpiece. Visitors will see that his prints echo his painting’s radical imagery and themes, featuring grotesque masks, crushing crowds, strident political critiques, and haunting portrayals of the artist and his alter ego, Jesus Christ.

Using bold colors, aggressive brushstrokes, and visual distortions, Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 is Ensor’s colorful, chaotic critique of capitalism, the Catholic Church, and the Belgian state.  The scene depicts Christ entering Brussels in a Mardi Gras parade surrounded by a dehumanized sea of masks, frauds, clowns, and caricatures representing the crude mob-like society.  The painting was known of but was not publicly exhibited until 1929. Ensor displayed the work prominently in his home and studio throughout his life.

Unable to sell his paintings in the 1880s, Ensor taught himself etching, a traditional form of copperplate printmaking. Taking inspiration from past experts in the field, notably Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn and Jacques Callot, Ensor learned to manipulate an image by simply altering a line’s thickness, length, or shape.  A remarkable craftsman, Ensor was meticulous about the papers, inks, and colors used to make his prints, and was one of the most successful at combining printmaking and the art of hand-coloring into a single artistic practice.  This skill can be seen in The Seven Deadly Sins, on view in the exhibition, which he published as an album in 1904.  Ensor saw  etching, unlike painting, as a medium of the future—preserved in solid copper and easily reproduced.

In 1898, a decade after he finished painting Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, Ensor transformed the enormous composition into a print.  In his small work, Ensor maintains much of the complexity of the painting, but to make his small-scale composition more traditional in form, he removed the painting’s largest banner, providing a clear view into the distance. The print preserves some of the political slogans that Ensor covered over in the original painting later in life when his views become more moderate.  A line of text at the bottom now missing from the painting, Vive Anseele et Jesus (Long Live Anseele and Jesus), brazenly associates Christ and his mission of salvation with Edouard Anseele (Belgian, 1856–1938), a socialist reformer.

In his work, Ensor returns repeatedly to certain motifs, particularly crowds and processions, presenting urban density as a metaphor for modern life.  His use of masks was inspired by the ones sold at his family’s curiosity shop for the annual carnival celebrations.  For Ensor, these came to symbolize the grotesque psychological and moral qualities of the people who wore them.  In his most powerful images, Ensor combines scenes of violent protests with the satirical chaos of processions.  The artist does not spare himself in his works, portraying himself in various forms, from a 100-year-old man to a beetle, and most famously as a haloed Christ riding through the crowded streets of Brussels.

Ensor's Graphic Modernism is curated by Louis Marchesano, curator of prints and drawings, the Getty Research Institute, and Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings, the J. Paul Getty Museum.

All events are free unless otherwise noted. For reservations and information, please call 310-440-7300 or visit

James Ensor, Burlesque Wizard of Modern Printmaking
Ensor’s remarkable originality is deeply indebted to both traditional printmaking techniques and rules of representation. This lecture by Louis Marchesano, curator of prints and drawings, the Getty Research Institute, explores Ensor’s reliance on those traditions as well as his radical transformation of them. Reservations required.
Thursday, June 29, 7:00 p.m., Museum Lecture Hall, The Getty Center

Gallery Course
Love, Death, and Anarchy: The Many Faces of James Ensor
Join Louis Marchesano, curator of prints and drawings, the Getty Research Institute, and Zhenya Gershman, artist and Getty Museum educator, in this two-part gallery course that explores Ensor’s paintings and prints. Lectures and gallery discussions examine the artist’s printmaking and painting techniques, the historical context of his work, and interpretations of his provocative images. Course fee $20. Open to 30 participants.
Thursdays, May 11 and 18, 3:00–5:00 p.m., Museum Studios and galleries, The Getty Center

Studio Course
The Printed Image
Join artist Jennifer Anderson and artist and Getty Museum educator Jaime Ursic for these two-part printmaking workshops. Participants will learn basic techniques for intaglio printing, including plate preparation, line-and mark-making, and inking techniques, and will pull their own prints. Course fee $65; students $50. Open to 25 participants.
Tuesdays, July 11 and 18, repeats July 25 and August 1, and August 22 and 29; 1:00–5:00 p.m. Museum Studios, The Getty Center

Gallery Talks
Listen to one-hour talks about the exhibition by collectors and curators. Meet under the stairs in the Museum Entrance Hall, The Getty Center.

Tom Firman, collector
Thursday, May 18, 1:30 p.m.

Richard A. Simms, collector
Wednesday, May 24, 1:30 p.m.

Louis Marchesano, curator of prints and drawings, the Getty Research Institute
Tuesday, June 6, 1:30 p.m.

Scott Schaefer, curator, department of paintings, the J. Paul Getty Museum
Wednesday, June 14, 1:30 p.m.

Point-of-View Talks
Guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal, whose work examines politics and power, and the abuses of both, discusses the exhibition. Sign up at the Museum Information Desk beginning at 3:00 p.m.
Friday, June 23, 4:30 and 6:00 p.m., Museum galleries, The Getty Center

Artist-at-Work Demonstrations
Drop by as artist Jennifer Anderson demonstrates printmaking materials and techniques with a focus on etching and engraving.
1:00–2:00 p.m.—Creating plates
2:00–3:00 p.m.—Printing plates
Thursdays and Sundays, June 15–July 30, Museum Courtyard, The Getty Center

Publications are available in the Getty Museum Store, by calling 800-223-3431 or 310- 440-7059, or online at

James Ensor: Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889
By Patricia G. Berman
This book examines Ensor’s painting in light of Belgium’s rich artistic, social, political, and theological debates in the late 19th-century. (Getty Publications, paper: $19.95)

The Superhuman Crew
Painting by James Ensor, lyric by Bob Dylan
Two visionary works of art—Ensor’s masterpiece Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 and Bob Dylan’s song Desolation Row —create a riveting visual and verbal experience. (Getty Publications, hardcover: $24.95)

Note to editors:  Images available on request

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Miranda Carroll
Getty Communications Department

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