James Ensor

Meet James Ensor
Belgium’s famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand
Appreciate the man

Before there were junk stores
Before there was junk
He lived with his mother and the torments of Christ

  • They Might Be Giants, 1994

In the song “Meet James Ensor”, the band They Might Be Giants (1994) discuss one aspect of the late 19th Century that we see in Barkin’s essay “The Crisis of Modernity”. Until this time of industrialization, purchased belongings were precious. Textiles and materials were purchased, fabricated into something, and disassembled then re-used when their usefulness was finished…there was no junk. This move towards the inevitable “junk stores” is an excellent framework for some of the themes present in the essay that go beyond a nostalgia for the past: industrialization, urbanization, and the affect on humans.

As we read in Barkin (1996), Germany was particularly dragging its feet into modernity. The concept of banking, shopping, and urban living took a strong turn towards anti-Semitic hyperbole instead of the realization of a changing world. The focus on specialization in industry was an affront to the multi-skilled artisans of the time. A classically trained  carpenter working within a guild could do many tasks that required skill while a factory worker might be able to make one wooden table leg over and over again. The work that I think most makes a statement about industrialization is Matisse’s Red Room. With the flat presentation, akin to how multiple layers of a printing press might look, Matisse is telling a story that completely contradicts the work process of his previous country-mates. Instead of hyper-realistic images and ornate scenes, he paints for us a scene that contains a collection of products that could be made both by hand or by factory, in a style that could be mechanized, and we would never know.

When I was growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I desperately wanted to live in a city. The excitement of streets and people and the proximity of living near stores was enchanting. I can understand how rural Europe took to the excitement and promise of urbanization. As a multi-decade resident of a city, I can also see the issues that Munch exemplifies in Evening on Karl Johan Street, Anxiety, and The Scream – the sense of being alone yet together, a fear of crime unlike anything experienced in a small village, and the complete overwhelming feelings of this busy world. All of these paintings feel like the works of someone who might have been out of their own time and was trying to convey those emotions as a forewarning. Today, a suburban upbringing is not too different from living in the city due to the distribution of technology and mass communications, however, in some ways, there was a bit of time travel happening as the difference between those modern cities and the villages was so stark at the dawn of the 20th Century. The invention of electricity, the changing moral codes, and the lack of reliance on religion as a guidepost certainly differentiated the city from the villages.

The rise of wealth came about from industrialization and urbanization and this had a profound impact on the human condition. As Barkin relates in the essay, city life and factory specialization “form terrible soil for the development of human beings”. My interpretation of this time is the development of existential emptiness that continues to be present today. This is best exemplified by Ensor’s work Skeletons Warming Themselves. Ensor sees people as inverted shells of they’re former selves. Instead of living fulfilling lives, he posits that we are merely walking dead. Like Munch’s Evening, Ensor’s skeleton paintings portray city life as soul sucking. In a similar way, our possessions become meaningless as there are replacement versions being built in factories at this moment. Everything can become junk.   

I’m reminded by this period that the Crisis of Modernity is not over. Technology continues it’s march forward, as the Calvinists believed God wants, and yet it is neither evenly distributed or it is rejected outright. Developing countries, rich with natural resources, are the targets of post-colonial colonialism through technology adoption and metered distribution. More analogous to this time are the modern anti-vaccine advocates who reject the modernity of medicine. Looking forward, I think this Crisis will continue to play itself out in creative works as we see society continue to struggle with modernity and how much each of us is willing to sacrifice to it.  


They Might Be Giants. John Henry. Elektra, 1994.

This was a response to my UMD ARTH201 Class taught by Dr. Abigail Upshaw from Summer 2021.