SHIP OF FOOLS

 

Kevans takes the allegory ‘Ship of Fools’ as the title for a series of paintings which addresses her interest in the changing perception of madness and its relationship with societal notions of success and achievement. 

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, European authorities would deal with their mad denizens by handing them over to mariners who would sail them to foreign ports where they became someone else’s problem.  As well as being compatible with the commonly held belief that folly and water were somehow linked, the custom also provided people with a salacious side-show when ships carrying foreign lunatics would sail into port.

Since that time, the term ‘Ship of Fools’ has long been used in Western art and literature to describe society without direction or heading for disaster.  From Sebastian Brandt’s poem of 1494, to the film starring Vivien Leigh (who was herself given electroconvulsive therapy for manic depression), ‘Ship of Fools’ has been employed to title a multitude of paintings, films and songs. 

As 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, the extent to which and how it is still stigmatised is the impetus behind the conceptual research of this body of work.   The list of the great and the good with varying degrees of mental illnesses is seemingly endless and sometimes surprising.  Examples include Winston Churchill, Diana Spencer, Kirsten Dunst, Sigmund Freud, Jackson Pollock, Drew Barrymore, Charles Dickens, Kim Basinger, Yves Saint Laurent, Jim Carrey, Britney Spears, Sinead O’Connor, Ozzy Osbourne, Albert Camus, Beyonce Knowles, Ewan McGregor, and Mark Twain.  Kevans is also interested in the way society is obsessed with post-diagnosing people long after their death.  Famous examples include Michelangelo, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln and Ludwidg van Beethoven. 

As in much of Kevans’ work, the idea of truth versus fiction features in the series.  Diagnosis in itself is based on opinion. Studies show that incidences of certain diagnoses rise and fall depending on public perceptions and trends. 

 

Anyone proclaiming themselves to be the son of God now is seen to be mad but two thousand years ago Jesus did just that. In the fifteenth century, thousands followed Joan of Arc, a teenager who heard voices, into battle.  In the 1920s, the American public were drawn into the strange fantasy world of Opal Whiteley.  Opal was a young woman from Oregon who claimed to be the kidnapped daughter of the Duke Henri Prince of Orléans, a descendant of the French royal family.  She also claimed to be able to communicate with animals and trees.  Her childhood diary was a best-seller in America and the public believed it was proof that her story was true.  Eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, Opal spent her last 44 years in Napsbury Hospital, St Albans.  She died in 1992 and was buried in Highgate cemetery as HRH Francoise Marie de Bourbon D’Orléans.

Kevans believes “perceptions of one’s mental stability are dictated by time, place and belief systems.  The days of Opal Whitely and the Cottingley fairies seem long gone but are they?  While today we dismiss those who claim to be ‘the son of God’, religion retains a special status in most societies.  Indeed, millions of us willingly drift in and out of the bizarre realm of magic, visions and voices that religions provide.  We are happy to diagnose Leonardo Da Vinci and Beethoven but draw the line at Jesus.  She aims not to belittle religion but to question our verdicts on history and the way we arrive at our perceptions of intellectual solidity.

 

(Text taken from the Fine Art Society's press release)

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