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Review Revue: The Critics Respond to James Ensor

The Belgian artist’s new exhibit at the Art Institute has garnered some strong critical commentary.

James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890.   Photo: Hugo Maertens. Image: Courtesy of Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, 1856. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. © Lukas-Art in Flanders vzw.

The Art Institute’s winter blockbuster has already garnered strong critical commentary.

The Belgian artist James Ensor is known for his ribald paintings of politicians and the public. A major retrospective of the artist’s shocking artwork, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor, opened last week at the Art Institute of Chicago. Co-organized with the Getty Center in Los Angeles, where it debuted earlier this year, the exhibit opened to a flurry of critical attention. The highlights, below.

“It’s worth the effort. Saint Anthony [a major artwork in the show] 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.” —William Poundstone, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

“All of this makes Ensor’s work feel terrifically contemporary: the raw humor, the comic book color palette, the off-the-charts levels of disdain for every kind of authority. If he were alive today, he could have ruled Comic-Con.” —Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times

“You want a scandal? Here you have it – there is a small hand-colored etching from LACMA’s collection, Doctrinal Nourishment (1889), depicting royal and religious figures of authority with their pants down, squatting and defecating over the large crowd of civilians below them.” — Edward Goldman, KCRW

It’s “straight from the bowels of burlesque Belgian wizard James Ensor…for your pleasure or for your disgust… he doesn’t much care.” —Curator Scott Allan lectures on the exhibition

“Ensor’s most important drawing… was in need of conservation and restoration, which became an eight-year project. It will be its first public showing in more than 60 years.” —Carol Vogel, New York Times  

“In his letters, Ensor describes a tapeworm infection that sapped his productivity for months in 1885: ‘The thing is frighteningly large and has unprecedented stamina.’ He signed one letter with a drawing of a tapeworm.” —Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal  

GO: Through January 25, 2015 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S Michigan. artic.edu.

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