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.

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.

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