Painting By Numbers
Meet James Ensor - And His Friends
Meet James Ensor, Belgium's famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand
Appreciate the man
My girlfriend has been listening lately to the They Might Be Giants song "Meet James Ensor" from their John Henry album. As a result, she surfed the Net and started reading about James Ensor, who turned out to be a real Belgian painter, just as the tuneful twosome said he was. He was most famous for his painting Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (pictured above), which was considered "scandalous" in its time for addressing religion, politics, and art in its depiction of Christ entering contemporary Brussels in a Mardi Gras parade. The painting is permanently installed at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which in May 2006 became the first LA museum to devote an exhibit exclusively to Ensor.
Turning to Wikipedia, I found the following:
James Ensor (April 13, 1860 - November 19, 1949) was a Belgian impressionist painter, who lived in Ostend for almost his entire life; his father was English, his mother Belgian. He was associated with the artistic group Les XX.
His works are prominently featured in the Modern Art Museum of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, and exhibited in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. A collection of his letters is held in the Contemporary Art Archives of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels.
James Ensor is considered to be an innovator in 19th century art, and a precursor to the surrealist painters of the twentieth century. During the late 1800s much of his work was rejected as scandalous, particuarly his painting Entry of Christ into Brussels. However, his paintings continued to be exhibited, and he gradually won acceptance and acclaim. He is considered to have influenced Klee and other expressionist painters.
Yes, yes, but on a more interesting personal note, I learned that Ensor's family forbade him to marry the woman he loved - giving him a ulcer on top of a moral dilemma. However, far from being just another starving artist ignored in his time, I learned Ensor won acclaim and respectability in his lifetime and was even knighted and given the title of Baron!
Further research led me to L.A.'s Getty Museum, which featured this fascinating curio in its catalog:
The Superhuman Crew: Painting by James Ensor, Lyric by Bob Dylan (pictured left), a book/CD mix that "brings together two visionary works of art - James Ensor's masterpiece painting Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889 and Bob Dylan's Desolation Row." The book includes a complete reproduction and numerous details of Ensor's painting, the full text of Dylan's lyrics to "Desolation Row," and a compact disc with his recording of the song (originally recorded on 1965's Highway 61 Revisited). What a great idea. "Desolation Row" was Dylan's most visual song, with its Fellini-like parade of eccentrics and grotesques, and apparently matches up well with Ensor's painting. For a detailed deconstruction of what's going on in Ensor's painting, see the Getty Museum description here.
For Artists Only: A Playlist
I love pop songs about painters because it puts a high-brow art form into terms my low-brow mind can understand. The first one I can remember was Don McLean's famous "starry starry night" ode to "Vincent" Van Gogh and I remember a Sinatra-Keely Smith call-and-response duet called "Nothing In Common" that had the lines "I love Picasso, he's all style and he's all flair/I've seen Picasso and I think he's a square" (Picasso seems to have been the lone art superstar worthy of name-dropping in the post-war, pre-modern Square Fifties). But the painting-by-musical-numbers genre was really championed by Jonathan Richman, the former Modern Lovers frontman who drew the template for quirky rockers like TMBG and whose songs have celebrated Pablo Picasso (who "never got called an asshole" - at least not by JR), Vincent Van Gogh ("the baddest painter since Jan Vermeer!", one "who loved color and who let it show" ) and Salvadore Dali. When not name-checking painters, Richman was wont to sing about art museums, as he did in "Girlfriend" when he sang: "If I were to walk through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, well first I'd go to the room where they keep the Cezannes, but if I had by my side a girl friend, then I could look through the paintings, I could look right through them because I'd have found something that I understand: I understand a girl friend."
Inspired by They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Richman, I've decided to make a painters mix CD. Beside the Giants and JR, I thought of David Bowie's "Andy Warhol" from Hunky Dory and even (tangentially) the Talking Heads' "For Artists Only", but then I discovered that the folks at the online music download site Rhapsody have already put together a playlist of songs written about, or inspired by famous painters, including Don McLean's "Vincent," David Bowie singing about Picasso (a cover of The Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso"), Dar Williams singing about Mark Rothko, Teenage Fanclub on MC Escher, Paul Simon on Magritte, Michael Smith on Gauguin, and many more. (But no James Ensor!) Of course, you have to pay for Rhapsody! (Hmmmpppffftt!)
Here's Rhapsody's playlist:
Songs About Painters
If anyone has any other suggestions, please lemme know!
"Meet John Ensor" is on TMBG's John Henry CD
"Pablo Picasso" is on The Modern Lovers debut CD
"Vincent Van Gogh" & "Salvadore Dali" are on Jonathan Richman's Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love CD