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The Lego 'Nanban' Ship of Fools

Edward Luper, 'The Lego 'Nanban' Ship of Fools, mineral pigment on gold leaf and washi paper mounted on wood panel

All art is a self-portrait, and this painting of a ship on gold leaf in mineral pigments is no different. It has a lot within to unpack and since I am frequently asked questions as to what inspired me etc, I felt it was best to write here what elements brought about this deeply personal painting, which I consider to contain my life experiences so far.

Firstly, as a child, I wanted to be a pirate. Blackbeard (who's first name was also Edward by the way: a very important fact to me at the time) was something of an anti-hero to me. I loved anything to do with 16th or 17th century ships, the golden age of piracy, privateering and exploration around the globe. As a child, these pirates seemed to be having all the fun, sailing around the world looking for treasure, fighting with cannons and staying up all night without bedtime. Naturally, my favourite toy was Lego pirate model sets and I drew pirate ships constantly.

Drawings of ships from when I was 8

A few years later as I entered puberty however, a transition took place that led me from pirates to the far east. I read a book about the 16th century English adventurer William Adams, who sailed to Japan and became a samurai. His story was made famous by the writer James Clavell in 'Shogun' which also became a TV series. Although admittedly not a great piece of literature for children like say Harry Potter, I was nevertheless hooked and became a Japanophile and later a Sinophile. In other words, it played a huge influence on who I became.

William Adams arrived in Japan at a time when trade in the region was still dominated by the Portuguese and the Spanish. The Japanese created lavishly decorated 'nanban' (southern barbarian) screens depicting these exotic foreigners with unusual clothes, features and goods. As an auction house specialist of Asian art and a huge admirer of Japanese art, it seemed fitting to incorporate in my painting Japanese techniques of gilding for the clouds and mineral pigments, as well as a nanban style ship. From afar, this painting may look like a section from an antique Japanese screen!

Japanese screen showing foreigners arriving, 16th century

So we know that the painting incorporates elements from my childhood and work: a love of pirates, exploration, Japanese art and Lego. But what are the Lego figures doing? and what's going on in this painting? why call it the ship of fools?

The 'ship of fools' is an old allegory going back to Plato's 'Republic', discussing a ship run by people without proper training or expertise. The theme has been taken up by numerous artists since such as Hieronymus Bosch, and my favourite one by Oskar Laske (1874-1951). Oskar Laske's 'ship of fools' done in 1923, now in the Belvedere in Vienna, contains all of humanity with all its foibles, neuroses, and madness.

Oskar Laske, 'Ship of Fools', 1923, Belvedere Museum, Vienna

The past few years as I graduated and entered the work force as a company employee for an auction house, I had several existential crises and came to the conclusion that there's no point trying to struggle to fit in to a mad world.

close up angle

Here in my painting though, the ship of fools is more an allegory for myself rather than humanity in general. Although I do believe that my deepest thoughts and feelings are rooted in a common humanity. Many before have felt and thought the same fears, anxieties and pleasures, and many more will do so after me. I felt it more acceptable to express these adult situations and thoughts using childhood Lego toys: it made it somehow both ridiculous and more allowable at the same time. In short, painting a man committing suicide is disturbing and raw, but a Lego figure committing suicide is somehow comical yet still gets the point across.

Edward Luper, preparatory ink sketches for Lego figures

Another important point for me in this painting was to still make it beautiful. Beauty is sometimes considered a bad word in modern art: it is superfluous to the raw and painful (because it is always usually raw and painful rather than happy) expression of the artist. Nevertheless, I wanted to create a painting which from afar looks like a beautiful antique. Its only when you go close up and see the details that you realise it is a modern painting.

One thing to add; some might also notice the Lego elephant and wonder why? Short answer: I love elephants. It's another strong childhood memory. Perhaps I was an elephant in a past life. But they are also depicted on Japanese 'nanban' screens, so it didn't feel too out of place here either.

Detail of Japanese screen showing an elephant on the bottom right, 16th century

My ship journeys from childhood to adulthood, muddling along, while forces around it threaten to wreck it: it is somewhere between order and chaos.


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