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Wednesday, July 25, 2001


The misanthropic genius of Ensor

Living in densely populated cities, we survive by ignoring the crowd, by refusing to acknowledge those forced into physical proximity with us. The artist, however, is excluded from this luxury. He is expected to be aware of everything around him, including the seething mass of humanity. The etchings and lithographs of Belgian artist James Ensor (1860-1949), currently on display at the Tokyo Station Gallery, reveal an intense awareness of humanity that is by turns painful, morbid and disgusting, but also very amusing.

Etchings by James Ensor
"The Cathedral" (1886)
"The Entry of Christ Into Brussels" (1898)
"Scandalized Masks" (1895)
Photograph of the artist in 1940
"The Baths at Ostend" (1898)

Anybody preparing to spend time on Japan's overcrowded beaches this summer might get a sense of deja vu from "The Baths at Ostend" (1898), an etching of his famous painting of 1890. This shows the chaos of a day at the beach at the Belgian resort town where Ensor lived for all but three years of his long life. Below a smiling, sleepy-looking sun, every inch of the picture is alive with small comical figures sporting in the shallow water. Vulgar details, like a fat boy propelling his toy sailboat with a fart, set the tone of the picture and leave the viewer in little doubt about Ensor's cynicism regarding the human race.

As with this picture, Ensor's most astounding works involve intricately detailed crowd scenes. "The Cathedral" (1886) recreates the Gothic beauty of Aachen cathedral with a sensibility reminiscent of the great French illustrator, Gustave Dore, but it is the crowd in the foreground that attracts the most attention, as it does in "The Entry of Christ Into Brussels" (1898), where the Belgian capital is ridiculously made the site of the Second Coming.

The reason Ensor's crowds are so compelling is that he is able to bestow individuality on each tiny figure, who then seems preoccupied with his or her own passions and problems. In "The Multiplication of the Fishes" (1891), which takes the biblical story of Christ feeding the multitude as its nominal theme, only a few figures seem to be paying any attention to the miracle taking place. Instead we have people facing off in arguments, two men kissing and, in the hand-colored engraving, a red-nosed drunk staring out of the corner of the picture directly at the viewer.

Ensor is able to achieve individuality in his crowd scenes by presenting mankind as a multitude of quirks and sins. In doing this he is harking back to a tradition evident in the work of such great Flemish masters as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who represented the foibles of humanity with a similar gusto. His "Seven Deadly Sins" (1888-1904), a series featuring both black-and-white and hand-colored images, also fits into this tradition with its devils and scythe-bearing figures of death hovering in the background.

Ensor's pictures, in their brutality and vulgarity, outdo anything by his earlier models. "The Pisser" (1887) is relatively discrete in showing us a man urinating against a wall from behind. However, there is no escaping the obscenity of "Alimentation Doctrinaire" (1889), a scatological satire that uses defecation as a metaphor for power, with five figures representing education, the church, the army, the government and the king, literally dumping on a crowd of citizens, some of whom eagerly swallow what they are being fed.

His majesty, King Leopold II of Belgium, couldn't have been too upset by this gross caricature, or by the vulgarity of the "The Baths at Ostend," the original of which he found so amusing that he made Ensor a baron! Perhaps this is because Ensor's satire, although very sharp, is too universal to have a specific political focus. Implicit in his work is the idea that whatever humanity does, it will remain forever stupid, smirking, vain and loathsome.

Lithographs by James Ensor, till Aug. 12 at Tokyo Station Gallery; (03) 3212-2763. Admission 800 yen, students 600 yen.

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