The J. Paul Getty Museum has purchased one of the key icons of modern painting, James Ensor's huge "The Entry of Christ Into Brussels in 1889."
The purchase, announced Friday by museum director John Walsh, contradicts the museum's stated intention of avoiding the acquisition of modern works of art, but it brings one of the most important precursors of Surrealist and Expressionist painting to rest in Southern California.
Walsh called the acquisition "the museum's most important painting."
It was purchased from a private foundation in Liechtenstein after being on loan to the Kunsthalle in Zurich since 1983. As usual, the museum declined to reveal the price, and even sources familiar with the art market found estimates difficult because of the artist's highly individual position and the virtually legendary status of the painting.
"It has to be in the millions," said one puzzled authority, "but even guesstimating closer than that would be irresponsible."
Ensor is hardly a household name to the general American public, but he is revered in Europe, especially in his native Belgium, where he is regarded as their most important contributor to the roots of the modern aesthetic.
He was the most heavily represented artist in "Flemish Expressionism," an exhibition that visited the Newport Harbor Art Museum earlier this year. He is bracketed with such precursors as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch in the development of an intensely personal painting style that carries the artist's feelings through high-key color and distorted form and space.
Ensor (1860-1959) was born in Ostend of an English mother and a Flemish father who kept a curio shop full of souvenirs, shells, bric-a-brac and carnival masks that were to have a decisive influence on the artist's paintings of masked figures and skeletons presented in bizarre or grotesque situations that recall the art of Pieter Breughel and Hieronymus Bosch.
Ensor is generally characterized as an isolated original, but he was in touch with the advanced art of his time, helping found the art group Les Vingt after being rejected by the Antwerp salon and other official exhibitions.
He painted "The Entry of Christ Into Brussels in 1889" in 1888 after seeing Georges Seurat's big painting "Afternoon on La Grande Jatte." It is a measure of Ensor's eccentricity that he could have produced a painting like the Getty purchase from the inspiration of Seurat's serene art.
Ensor's painting is a seething mass of masked figures disappearing into a deep funnel of space with a small image of Christ (who has Ensor's face) almost lost in their midst. According to one account, he painted it as a satire of the power of the church, the rise of mass culture and its mindless conformity.
At about 14 feet wide, it was Ensor's most ambitious work. Some critics feel he overreached himself in it, but no one disputes its historical importance. It was too much even for his advanced contemporaries, and Les Vingt refused it for exhibition. Present-day observers see its large size as predicting everything from a large painting of a street by the German George Grosz to the colossal oversize canvases of the Abstract Expressionists. It is said to have inspired novelist Nathanael West's description of a painting called "The Burning of Los Angeles" in his 1939 novel "The Day of the Locust."
Today no one trained in the rudiments of modern art gets through a class without exposure to a slide and a lecture on the painting.
Ensor sold it to a Belgian collector in 1933. In the '50s it was acquired by a Belgian casino.
According to Getty public relations director Laurie Starr, the painting must undergo cleaning before being placed on public view, which will probably be in "a few months."
"I had always imagined it must belong to a museum already," Walsh said. "But it has always been in private hands. The Belgian government had several opportunities to buy it. I was stunned when we unpacked it. There are life-size figures in the foreground diminishing into thousands of ant people in the distance. The human hive. It's a very public picture about big issues like religion and politics, duplicity and corruption. Man the wolf and man the sheep. No wonder they didn't want to deal with it back then."
The Getty, which remains best known for its collections of ancient Greek and Roman antiquities, old master paintings and decorative arts, has quietly moved toward more recent art, purchasing a large collection of photographs in 1984 and adding paintings by several French Impressionists as well as works by Munch and Paul Gauguin.
Asked about the apparent contradiction in direction suggested by the Ensor purchase, Walsh explained that the museum will acquire works outside its mainstream direction when the are "too good to pass up."