Beauty, horror, and why I never want to meet Jan Fabre

I was recently in Lille for work, and swung by the Palais des Beaux-Arts to escape the particularly biting cold that descended on the city this January. I’m glad I did, because the temporary exhibition I found in there quite frankly blew me away.

The museum has a full-gallery exhibition dedicated to Belgian artist Jan Fabre, who painstakingly created 21 massive allegorical works entirely out of the iridescent wing cases of the jewel beetle.

In his series of artworks collectively called “Tribute to Hieronymus Bosch in Congo,” Jan Fabre uses the glittering shells in their hundreds of thousands to create magnificent allegorical set pieces based on the brutal history of Belgian colonialism in the Congo.

The result is at the same time stunning and horrifying, and addresses, I think, a problem that Western art has struggled with ever since the world wars and the collapse of the unjust colonial system. That is, how we can ever make art beautiful again.

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It’s rare to completely “get” a piece of art. Sometimes I find myself looking at something for a long time and never quite understanding what it’s meant to make me feel. Sometimes it takes some work. But when I saw Fabre’s beetle-shell paintings, I immediately experienced something very deeply, and experienced at the same time the sensation that this is exactly how I was intended to feel.

First of all, the huge pieces are stunningly beautiful. As you walk around them, the shells shimmer from a deep emerald to a glittering opal blue, and a range of warm, golden oranges. These huge collages shift in the light so that certain features are more prominent when viewed from one side than the other. Fabre also achieves such a startling range of textures through the different arrangements of the shells: from fish scales to flower buds, from smooth metal to a young boy’s hair.

You feel in awe of such an undertaking, which must have been painstaking work. The work, let’s be honest, of someone who must be so very close to complete madness that he can spend thousands of hours placing beetle shells one after the other in exactly the right place. That seems to me to pass through the threshold of dedication and become something a bit more like obsession. The works look impossible, like they could never have been made by one man.

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Finally, you feel complete, all-consuming horror. When I first saw them, I imagined the artist killing the beetles en masse, and individually peeling off all their shells with his thumb. An insect genocide. Thankfully that’s not the case (they naturally shed), but the site of so many of the tiny chitin jewels still sets off something primal in you: the “ewww” reflex.

You can practically hear the millions of beetles chittering and crawling over each other in a swarm, opening their wing cases, fluttering and clicking and gnashing tiny mandibles.

Beauty, awe, disgust: you pass between these three moods quickly, flipping from one to the other, or experiencing different combinations of them at once. Each one is essential.

With this series of artworks, Fabre is trying to answer a question has plagued Western art since the great wars, and since the world woke up to the brutality of the colonial adventure. How could we hope to make beautiful things again, when our artistic traditions were the product of a privileged white male bourgeoisie, built on a bedrock of oppression?

Quite apart from the allegorical scenes and tableaus depicted within the images – a slave’s severed hand, a Congolese woman being prostituted, or the tributaries of the Congo running from a boy’s mouth – the mode of the images is what says the most.

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Just like these countless beetles, the Congo basin was a place of great natural beauty, varied in culture and language and peoples. Like Fabre, the Dutch colonialists thought: “with a little order, we could make something better out of this.” And of course, just like the finished beetle paintings, what resulted was something horrifying, inhuman, built on the sacrifice of so many lives.

So many lives. That’s the main thing I’ve come away with – and of course those who suffered under colonial regimes in the Congo, and all around the world, numbered many more than the 1.6 million beetles that gave their shells to Fabre’s collection.

Each shell, each perfectly-placed iridescent fingernail speaks on its own like a little grave, a little monument. It’s a magnificent achievement to make something quite so beautiful and quite so hideous at the same time.

All I know is that I never, ever want to meet Jan Fabre.

Read more: Hell in a handcart: The secrets behind Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain

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