Johan Myburg :: Notes on Folly, Frailty and Fear

The Renaissance – defined by the French historian Jules Michelet in the middle nineteenth century as the rebirth of art and literature under die influence of classical models – produced some of the brightest thinkers and ideas of all times, distributed these ideas to the masses by means of the printing press and opened up the world for global exploration. It was the age of far-sightedness and horizons being broadened, yet, at the same time it was a time of narrowmindedness, of short-sighted fools and of folly.

This folly was immortalized by prominent Renaissance artists: Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) immortalised folly with the publication of his Encomium Moriae, translated as In Praise of Folly, Sebastian Brant (1458-1521) wrote Das Narrenschiff, translated as Ship of Fools, Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516) painted a panel of the same name and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c1530-1569) painted his Het Luilekkerland (The Land of Cockaigne) as celebrations of a topsy-turvy world riddled with fools and stupidity.

Five centuries later we stand at the brink of a brilliant digital age, with a Fourth Industrial Revolution looming and with AI becoming less and less artificial by the day. How the future will reflect on our brilliant age, we cannot say. We might be lauded as the generation paving ways to the stars and for our invention of communication on a scale that has never been seen before. At the same time we might be remembered for our stupidity, and for our folly, frailty and fear.

In calling her latest exhibition Folly, Frailty and Fear, Diane Victor presents a body of work that reflects on contemporary society – advanced on so many levels and lauded as the Information Age, yet, notwithstanding all the information technologies and skills, a society plagued by folly, frailty and fear.

Victor draws in this body of work on imagery from and references to above mentioned historical manifestations of folly and foolishness, and employs her signature satire to mirror the ever-present stupidity that is part of our society. At the same time she confronts the viewer with the unfathomable horror of violence against women.

The exhibition includes work made the last few years – from recent drawings to lithographs printed at The Artists’ Press in White River and Francis van der Riet in France; from etchings to a tapestry woven by Margaret Stephens and a smoke-drawing woven in a light textile in France; from smoke-drawings printed onto fabric to drawings on blackboards.

Known for the satirical nature of her etchings (her use of humour, irony, exaggeration and ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices has been likened to Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichios as commentary on the universal follies and foolishness in the Spanish society in which he lived), she comments in the main drawing in the series In Praise of Folly on the exodus motif (“some go mad, some run away”) and Erasmus’ notion of the absent fatherland. In similar vein she comments in a series of drawings in pen and ink on the mundus inversus (world-upside down) and examples of bizarre manifestations in society.

In a series of blackboard drawings Victor reflects in lessons unlearned, on misjudgements, on miscalculations – such as placing an order for trains too tall for the tracks available.

Making light of a serious situation – the tragic realisation that one needs lights to attempt (forget achieve) a Fourth Industrial Revolution – has become a typical South African way of dealing with mishaps and setbacks. Foolish behaviour certainly has the potential to provide a seemingly lighter side to living since fools seem to be happy, while those who think and question tend to gravitate towards dour depression, as Erasmus and Brant indicate. However, with fool’s envy, fool’s paradises and fool’s gold abounding, we are all in danger of falling victim to unwise choices. Wealth, pleasure and popularity are favoured over greater critical thinking, exposing not only folly, but also frailty. And fear.

This self-centred blindness leads to societal injustice and anger and ultimately to intolerance and violence. In a society with an abhorrent tendency to classify and divide, we exist within a legacy of violence and aggression towards humanity. Nowhere this more prevalent than in gender based violence and more precisely in the fact that women continue to be abused and killed mostly by people close to them.

With her evocative drawing skills (as a manifestation of her approach to art making) and a huge dose of dark and sardonic humour Victor seduces the viewer to keep looking at images that one would like to forget. In employing humour on the one hand, she highlights the bizarreness of the situation and on the other makes the message more palatable. The only way for her to deal with dark issues is by means of humour, she argues, by breaking through peoples’ defence mechanisms in order for reality to hit harder. And equally so by introducing a sense of the carnivalesque , a type of comedy which acquires power in its subversion of social norms, values, and systems and in its ability to free people from dogmatism and a stagnant social order. The result may be either purifying or appalling. That is Victor’s way of communicating. Having a mistrust or dislike for words at the best of times and finding it difficult to talk, she plays the game of visual seduction, of seducing the viewer into investing time to look at the work and open up a dialogue.