Great Works: Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 1888 (252.7cm x 430.5cm), James Ensor

The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

There is a kind of unbridled, no-holds-barred madness to so many of James Ensor's paintings. But aren't we quite pleased to be let loose inside the funhouse of this 19th-century Belgian painter's teeming mind, jigging about, gigglingly helplessly, trousers around our ankles? It is rather as if we have found ourselves in a swimming pool, out of control, moving around in all directions at once.

We are not quite in charge of the situation. We entered into this pact of looking as the connoisseurs – or so we thought. We arrived at this place, of our own free will, in front of this tricksy, two-dimensional object to do the looking, to navigate our way – through and across, up and down – exactly as we saw fit. But no sooner did we arrive than our eyes were snatched away from us, and someone else seemed to be directing the orchestra.

Which means in practice that we are never quite sure where we should be peering next, whether it should be at this, that or the other. Nor are we ever quite sure where the painting's focus of attention is intended to be. If that lovely, delicate, orderly genius Raphael had been tied to a chair, and obliged to stare at this work, he would, having elegantly thrown off his bonds and run out into the sun-blinded piazza, be howling at its anarchy.

The title might give us a small clue – as titles so often do – but, in fact, it does not. It seems to spit or to laugh in our faces. If this is indeed the Saviour of the world entering Brussels in the very particular year of 1889, how do we really know that this is the case? In short, where exactly is Jesus? He is the hero, it is his triumphal moment, but he seems to have absented himself. He appears to have lost himself in the crowd or to have become risibly indistinguishable from all the rest of the teeming masses.

The title itself is already comically jarring. When was Christ ever known to have chosen Brussels as a place to enter, then or at any other historical moment? What did Brussels ever mean to Jesus Christ? Which of the four gospels has Jesus mentioning Brussels as a significant site of future pilgrimage? We ask these questions of ourselves even as we know them to be preposterous.

The next question seems to be unanswerable too. If this is indeed Christ entering Brussels, and we are expected to find him here, as the title more than suggests, where should we begin to look? Is there a particularly significant location within the anarchic, noisy, ever onward surge of this painting? Perhaps the most likely place is on that raised green platform to the right. There seems to be a master of ceremonies of some kind up there, red-pelicany-nosed, white-sashed, wearing a bowlerish hat, and carrying a pathetically thin, needle-like mace of sorts. But Jesus is not there, and we could argue that the way in which the crowds at the front of the painting appear to be milling and mingling among themselves rather aimlessly, flowing back and forth, might suggest that he has already passed on, and that this painting is nothing but the massively heaving, raggle-taggle aftermath of the surging crowd that came in his wake – and just missed him.

In support of this wayward conjecture – so much is wayward conjecture here – we could cite the cleric at the very front of the painting, almost dead centre, the one with his head thrown back as if offered up, John the Baptist like, on a platter, who has the (fairly) vague look of Greek Orthodoxy about him, and who is clutching something – it is not quite clear to us what, though it could be the keys – or the key – to the kingdom of heaven – in his right hand. Would not such a man be near to the Saviour, chaperoning him perhaps?

Wait a minute though. This wild, collage-like scene, the way in which everyone is juxtaposed with everyone else in these strange, roaringly slapdash and overlapping ways, makes us wonder whether this is indeed the hand of the cleric at all – if he is indeed a cleric and not a man in the carnival mask of a cleric. (That could be possible, too. There is so much masquerading here.) Yet is it not too dark and too small to be his hand? But if it is not his hand, whose hand is it?

Oddly, almost as if in spite of itself, this extraordinary painting does cohere. It feels part-made from flattened fragments of itself, but it does proceed towards us, blaring away, all of a piece, big, medium and small heads, some lumpish, others rectangular, heads like pumped up balloons or pitiful radishes, skeletal heads, clownish heads, frightening, galumphing heads, and all seeking out the absent Jesus.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

James Ensor (1860-1949) lived his entire life above his mother's curiosity shop in Ostend, Belgium, and from that shop some of the most characteristic motifs of his paintings emerged: skeletons, skulls, carnival masks. He is best remembered for his mask faces, distorted, grotesque, ever inclining towards the comic and the ridiculously macabre.

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