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Teeing Up the Twentieth Century

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There are almost a dozen retina-tickling works here. (The large drawings, too, are a revelation.) Most are from the ten years starting around 1885, when he was a creative fireball. My favorite, and one of the most radical in early modernism, is MoMA’s own Tribulations of Saint Anthony (1887). The work features a hooded holy man inundated by Boschian creatures floating in swampy skiesdevils and demons who fart on him and defecate. But the subject matter, wild as it is, is nothing next to the delirious, worked-up way it’s painted. We see lush, jittery brushstrokes, viscous paint doubling as clouds, mountains, forests, and thought-balloons. This painting has been a door for a thousand artists; seen in this context, it can be a door to a thousand more. In the much flatter and blocky Fireworks, an abstract plume of fire or an erupting volcano or a flaming palm tree explodes from the bottom of the painting, towering above tiny onlookers. Across the gallery, Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise (also 1887), however muddled, looks like Monet and Turner on hallucinogens.

Because of the effusiveness of his paint, his visual inventiveness, and his flickering, heavenly touch, Ensor has a special purchase on our imagination. Now that we’re in our own fin-de-binge moment of starting over, stepping out, digging deep, and working hard, he is a necessary artist for other artists to see. Ensor clearly tells us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

James Ensor
Museum of Modern Art
Through September 21.

E-mail: jerry_saltz@newyorkmag.com.


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