The Comité Ensor has confirmed the authenticity of these works.
i. L'annonciation, 1912
ii. L'adoration des Mages, 1913
iii. Le massacre des Innocents, 1913
iv. La fuite en Egypte, 1913
v. La Sainte Famille, 1914
vi. La circoncision, 1913
vii. Le baptême du Christ, 1912
viii. Le Christ et les Docteurs, 1912
ix. Le denier de César, 1912
x. Laissez venir à moi les petits enfants, 1910
xi. Le Christ chassant le démon du corps d'un possédé, 1914
xii. Le Christ apaisant la tempête, 1910
xiii. La pêche miraculeuse, 1913
xiv. Le Christ marchant sur la mer, 1911
xv. L'entrée à Jérusalem, 1912
xvi. La Cène, 1911
xvii. Le baiser de Judas, 1912
xviii. Ecce Homo, 1911
xixa. Le Christ livré aux critiques, 1910
xixb. Le Christ livré aux critiques: Plan, 1910
xx. La flagellation, 1915
xxi. La montée au Calvaire, 1912
xxii. L'élévation en croix, 1913
xxiii. Le Christ entre les larrons, 1914
xxiv. La descente de croix, 1912
xxv. Le retour du Calvaire, 1915
xxvi. Pietà, 1914
xxvii. Le Christ et les anges, 1913
xxviii. L'ascension, 1913
xxix. Le Saint-Esprit éclairant les apôtres, 1913
xxx. L'assomption, 1913
xxxi. La vierge adorée par les anges, 1913
‘I see a great unity in my art. Humility of the painter before nature; imagination peopled with dreams; works presenting palpable figures or forms, nourished and bathed in atmosphere; bodies broadly conceived; a line which is breathed, formed and drawn by the wind; broken colour; gestures magnified and deformed by mirage…’
‘Ensor drew this series using the many different stylistic tools and themes from the life of Christ with which he was already familiar: the repertoire of caricature-like figures, the world of masks, the calligraphic ornamentation, or the ability to create, in just a few gentle strokes, an inspired vision of light. He used all of these elements as material for free association, through which the artist no longer sought to legitimise his claim to genius, but rather, guided by the powers of his lively imagination, simply realised’
A deeply personal depiction of the life of Christ, James Ensor’s Scènes de la vie du Christ is a monumental series of thirty-two coloured drawings, created between 1910 and 1915. Ranking amongst the artist’s most important graphic work, this large, cohesive group of works is probably the only series of drawings to remain as a complete set within Ensor’s oeuvre. Religion, specifically Christianity, had occupied a central position throughout Ensor’s career; this theme appearing as a means of satire and social critique, as well as providing a powerful symbol – that of Christ – with which to identify himself. Illustrating the iconic cycle of images that tell the story of Christ’s life, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Assumption of the Virgin, here Ensor brings together the leading motifs and stylistic features of his distinctive artistic repertoire, turning these well-known images into fantastical, humorous, surreal and sometimes scatological scenes filled with masked, caricatured and grotesque figures that are depicted with swirling lines and luminous colours. Many of these drawings are based on great masterpieces of Ensor’s career, providing a fascinating view of the artist’s development throughout his career: just as the life of Christ is illustrated, so Ensor’s own artistic path can be traced through this series of works. In 1921, Scènes de la vie du Christ was used as the model for an album of thirty-two lithographs, which was published in three editions by the Galerie Georges Giroux in Brussels to honour Ensor on his sixtieth birthday. The gallery also staged a large exhibition of the artist, an event essential in founding Ensor’s reputation.
Though Ensor had depicted religious subjects and themes during his days as a student at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, it was not until the late 1880s and early 1890s that he began to use religion and religious allegory as a vehicle for social critique in his art. In his work from this period, Ensor frequently employed satire to attack the bourgeois conventions and beliefs of late 19th Century Brussels and point to the social injustices he believed pervaded modern-day life. At this time Belgium was a strongly Catholic country, where the church was intertwined with affairs of the state and politics. Engaged in a world of liberals, socialists, scientists, artists and free thinkers, Ensor developed a loathing of institutionalised religion, using his art as a means of illustrating this. Religion as well as science were for Ensor, ‘cruel goddesses, drenched in tears and blood', and art was his means of expressing this anti-authoritarian position (Ensor, quoted in H. Todts. ‘A Capricious Artistic Quest for bliss: Postmodernist “avant la lettre”’, in James Ensor by Luc Tuymans, exh. cat., London, 2016-2017, p. 23).
As with so much of Ensor’s art, things are never as they seem. In this series of drawings, the Holy family appear as if in a frenzied hallucination, the protagonists rendered with exaggerated and caricatured faces as if images from a strange nightmare. Combining the sacred and the profane, religion and modern-day life, allegory and description, these biblical figures are given the carnival masks of Ensor’s home, transformed from their popular depictions into deeply subjective visions from the artist’s psyche.
One of his most important works, L’entrée du Christ à Bruxelles of 1889 (Trictot, no. 293; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and formerly in the same collection as these drawings) announced this new direction in Ensor’s art. Instead of depicting Christ entering Jerusalem, here he is entering Ensor’s home town, Ostend, in the midst of the famed Mardi-Gras carnival. The writhing mass of the crowd – composed of masked figures that represent Belgium’s ruling classes – dominates the scene, dwarfing the image of the saviour, who is hardly visible behind this surging group of garishly coloured figures and their array of banners that reference both the past and contemporary day. Indeed, it is this image of Christ that also serves as a symbol of the artist himself. Regarded as a self-portrait of Ensor, here he has portrayed his conception of himself as a man ignored and overlooked, a visionary who is isolated among those who do not understand nor care about his practices – in this case Belgian society. L’entrée à Jérusalem (xv) appears in the present group of works, yet here without as much of the scathing personal critique, as Christ and his donkey are clearly identifiable right in the centre of the people-filled composition.
Rendered with sweeping lines of blues, reds and greens, Le Christ apaisant la tempête (xii)is similarly based on a seminal early work of the same name painted in 1891 (Tricot, no. 329). In these Turner-esque visions of abstract light and colour, Christ and his disciples are pictured crossing the Sea of Galilee. Ensor shows the moment in which Christ has awakened during the storm and enacts a miracle, calming the turbulent waters. ‘At the same time’, art historian and curator, Eva Linhart has written, ‘it becomes obvious that the painting in this picture is intended to express Ensor’s understanding of himself as an artistic genius. In an analogy to God, the painter passionately creates a storm of colour, which he simultaneously tames by transforming the paint – initially a material without shape or form – into a wonderful, light-intensive, visual event’ (E. Linhart, in I. Pfeiffer & M. Hollein, eds., James Ensor, exh. cat., Frankfurt, 2005-2006, p. 99).
Another earlier landscape, Le Christ marchant sur la mer of 1885 (Tricot, no. 273), also inspired the drawing of the same name in the present group of works (xiv) . In the oil, a marine landscape is shown framed by a triumphant rainbow. While the image of Christ himself is absent, Ensor was proving that he, like Christ himself, held supernatural abilities; in this case, the ability to transform materials – in paint upon canvas – into enthralling evocations of light and space. This was therefore one of the earliest works in which Ensor identifies with the figure of Jesus, using this analogy to demonstrate his own ‘divine’ artistic powers. The drawing features the same compositional structure, though this time Christ himself is pictured, his halo radiant amid the deep blue sea that stretches behind him.
In one of the works – Le Christ livré aux critiques (xixa) – the image takes on a direct personal meaning. Here, Ensor has once again depicted himself as the figure of Jesus, looking out at the viewer, with a crown of thorns and what appear to be drops of blood running down his unclothed torso. The artist, or Christ, is met by a crowd of Belgian art critics, writers and art historians – most of whom Ensor had known for years. Many of the figures are depicted in strange, brightly coloured costumes, poses and adorned in masks and headpieces. Each figure has been identified in a plan of the composition (Le Christ livré aux critiques: Plan, xixb): on the back row, from left to right stand the bearded figure of the writer, Franz Hellens, the poet and critic, Émile Verhaeren with a wide moustache, Dumont-Wilde, and the Flemish art historian and curator, Ary Delen, who is sporting a strange headpiece. In the second row, the music critic, François-Joseph Fétis brandishes a knife, appearing next to the writer, lawyer, and founder of the Libre Académie de Belgique, Edmond Picard, followed by the poet, Iwan Gilkin and Auguste Van Zype; and in the front row, Théo Hannon, a close friend of the artist, stands next to fellow founder of Les XX, the radical Belgian-based avant-garde group of the early 1880s, Octave Maus, beside whom Jules Destrée, a critic and politician, is positioned. All seem to be humbly kneeling down in service of artist-Christ figure before them.
Yet, while humour and satire still abound in this work, the caustic and hostile tone of his earlier religiously themed paintings has lessened. As Eva Linhart has written of this group of works, ‘This series bears the style of serene rupture unique to many of his later works. The aggressiveness and sustained programmatic quality that characterise the early depictions of Christ have given way to a lyrical tone. What was formerly a conflict-ridden clash between humanity and its saviour, the theme of existential suffering through art and through its critics, has been softened in this series into a kind of affectionate teasing’ (E. Linhart, ibid., p. 60).
Having remained in the same collection for almost a century, Scènes de la vie du Christ was acquired directly from Ensor by the famous Antwerp interior decorator, art collector and patron, François Franck. Franck met Ensor in 1905, introduced to the artist through the poet and critic Emma Lambotte, who was also a major patron of his work, and the two quickly became friends. Together with Ensor, Franck and his brothers founded Kunst van Heden, a group conceived as a counterpart to the alliance of avant-garde artists known as Les XX in Brussels. Over the course of their friendship, Franck acquired a large collection of many of Ensor’s greatest works, a number of which he gave to the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. These drawings subsequently passed to Franck’s son, Louis, who like his father, amassed an important collection of modern art, including work by Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso, and have remained in the same family’s collection until the present day.