James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, by far the largest and surely the strangest painting in the Getty Museum’s collection, visualizes the double-edged nature of crowds.
A bizarre parade spills through the city streets: soldiers, musicians, politicians, and revelers, all surrounding a minuscule figure of Jesus astride a donkey. Ensor rendered the scene, at once celebratory and nightmarish, in lurid colors and with crude brushstrokes. The roiling spectacle has always struck me as both exhilarating and unnerving.
Ensor intended his monumental painting as a barbed commentary on politics, religion, and society in fin-de-siècle Belgium, his native country. But what does the scene actually represent? A political demonstration? A religious celebration? A Mardi Gras festival? For one acclaimed early 20th-century American writer, the painting’s imagery appears to have called to mind the spellbinding effects of popular Hollywood cinema and the fluid line between mass entertainment and urban chaos.
When the Getty acquired the painting in 1987, writers in the press noted its peculiar connection to Los Angeles: Ensor’s wide-screen composition was long said to have inspired Nathanael West’s brilliant 1939 novel The Day of the Locust, a sharply satirical evisceration of Hollywood as a “dream factory.”
West, who moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1935 to work as a screenwriter, based his novel on personal experience. The protagonist, a set painter named Tod Hackett, interacts with an array of movie-industry castoffs—washed up vaudevillians, dime-store cowboys, and would-be starlets, as well as a depressed hotel clerk from the Midwest named Homer Simpson—people who, in Tod’s view, “have come to California to die.”
Evocations of Ensor’s painting pervade the novel. Several of the characters seem to have stepped from the canvas: one of them, we read, “had very little back or top to his head. It was almost all face, like a mask.” Another, a child actor dressed as a soldier and sporting plucked eyebrows, “rolled his eyes back in his head so that only the whites showed and twisted his lips in a snarl.”
Visiting the studio backlot, Tod observes a cast of hundreds gathering to film the Battle of Waterloo. “An army of cavalry and foot was passing. It moved like a mob; its lines broken, as though fleeing some terrible defeat. The dolmans of the hussars, the heavy shakos of the guards, Hanoverian light horse, with their fat leather caps and flowing red plumes, were all jumbled together in bobbing disorder.”
Frustrated by his hack work for movies, Tod plans his artistic revenge: an enormous painting entitled “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a vast scene of urban turmoil as engrossing as any silver screen epic: “[Tod] wanted the city to have quite a gala air as it burned, to appear almost gay. And the people who set it on fire would be a holiday crowd.”
Tod finds examples of Tinseltown hypocrisy in counterfeit religiosity. He visits revival halls to study the zealots shouting from the pews: “He would paint their fury with respect, appreciating its awful, anarchic power and aware that they had it in them to destroy civilization.” These passages surely recalled for readers the ostentatious sermons delivered at Angelus Temple in Echo Park by the media-obsessed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. With their brass bands, tiered choirs, and massed congregants whipped into a messianic frenzy, Sister Aimee’s elaborate spectacles could verge on Ensor-like pandemonium.
A current of anxiety, even danger, courses through any large gathering of people, whatever brings them together—political protest, religious celebration, or popular entertainment. The Day of the Locust ends with a throng assembling for a movie premiere outside “Kahn’s Persian Palace” (a stand-in for Grauman’s Chinese Theater). The celebrity-crazed fans grow increasingly agitated, incited by brutal cops and egged on by a breathless radio announcer: “What a crowd! It’s bedlam, folks. Can the police hold them?” Bedlam indeed ensues, and as the mob panics a child is beaten to death, Homer Simpson is killed, and Tod breaks his leg. John Schlesinger memorably captured the ensuing riot in his 1975 film adaptation.
The social conditions that lay behind West’s dystopian vision—an America wracked by ethnic and class strife exacerbated by the Great Depression and imminent world war—make the showbiz struggles of the book’s characters all the more pitiful; the slick productions of the film industry only distract them from the hopelessness of their lives.
Was West really thinking of Ensor’s Christ Entering Brussels when conceiving his novel? He couldn’t have seen the painting in person, as it was hidden in Ensor’s home in Ostend, Belgium, throughout the author’s life. But West was a painter in his youth and had studied art history in college in the 1920s; he surely knew reproductions of the famous painting in books, such as the full-page one printed in Grégoire Le Roy’s major monograph published in 1922.
The Day of the Locust itself offers the most compelling evidence that West knew the painting. During the riot at the movie premiere, Tod’s delirious thoughts turn to his own unfinished painting, its imagery now melding in his mind with the surrounding chaos: “Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches. […] They were marching behind a banner in a great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.” Baseball bats and torches notwithstanding, this is a pretty good description of Christ Entering Brussels.
Whatever James Ensor’s original intention, his great canvas—like all enduring works of art—has accumulated meanings that resonate at different moments in history. Nathanael West, who died in 1940, the year after The Day of the Locust was published, no doubt would have found it fitting that the painting now forms part of the cultural fabric of Los Angeles.