This is about two very different artists who lived on different sides of the world almost 80 years apart. Although their lives and times were very different their response to difficult times, although superficially seemingly very different, have a lot in common.
The first artist is called is Evelyn Dunbar. I fell in love with this painting of hers when I happened across it the other day. I had never heard of her before but the painting made my heart sing. Such a beautiful painting – full of poise and elegance. I loved the different shades of green in this neat Sussex garden. The artist had caught the thin light of very early spring perfectly.
This image appeared in an article about an online exhibition by Liss Llewellyn’s of Hidden Gems, which included the work of Evelyn Dunbar. I am a keen “collector” of female artists, both famous and overlooked. Evelyn was in the overlooked category. Who was she?
Evelyn Dunbar (b. 1906) was the youngest daughter of a Scottish draper who grew up in Kent, England. She was a talented student, first winning a scholarship to the local grammar school, and then she later studying art at the Chelsea School of Art from 1927 to 1929, and then winning an Exhibition at the Royal College of Art. In 1940 she was appointed an official war artist, becoming the only woman (amongst 36 men) to be given a full-time salaried position by the WAAC (War Artists’ Advisory Committee).
Her brief was to record civilian contributions to the war effort on the home front. Her initial subjects were the activities of the Women’s Voluntary Service, WVS, and later in the war, the Women’s Land Army, also known as Land Girls. I find her work both beautiful and fascinating. In this series of paintings “Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing,” I am torn between looking at the body language between the two female figures struggling with the unwieldy clothing and the way the light catches the protective clothing and their faces.
I loved her paintings of the land girls and the farms they worked on. I love her treatment of warm light on the land and in the rooms of the hostel. The compositions were dynamic, full of movement, and told many micro-stories. These paintings are not about individuals but about community. We can see the girl’s faces and each of them is an individual but it’s not about individual heroism, as such, but the collective effort. It’s clearly hard work on the farms.
Life is not comfortable. Those girls look exhausted.
Friendship and warmth are evident in the body language. These are self-possessed women, getting on with their lot in the war.
What does a painting do that a photograph can’t? Emotion. Colour. Although the tones are muted (lots of mustards and browns) it’s the details that say so much. The girls sitting on the table sewing, head bowed over her work. The strong sense of community and determination. The details of the hairnets, hairbands and rolled hairstyles are fascinating to 21st centuries eyes.
These paintings were commissioned by the government, and in many respects, they were propaganda designed to raise morale, as some of them they were exhibited at the time. They certainly give status to what was obviously back-breaking or even dull manual work as well as being a social record. Look at the earnest concentration on the faces of the ladies in the painting of a “knitting party” – you can almost hear the busy needles clacking – look at those hats too. Centre stage are the blankets they have completed. This event was clearly heavy on the knitting and light on the party! There is gentle humour here, we are not, however, invited to laugh at these ladies but to quietly admire them.
Compare these with a modern-day response to the “difficult times” we live in. Li Zhong, is my second artist. He is a professional artist from Shanghai. Early this year he created a massive series of paintings called Raging Epidemic, Frontline Warrior, Grassroots Perseverance, Logistical Support, Suspension of Classes, and Anti-Epidemic Sketches. Yes, a pithy title. These paintings were completed over a shorter time frame than Evelyn Dunbar’s, Li Zhong painted two a day, and were an unofficial and personal response to the pandemic (although the artist clearly had an official audience in mind).
Like Evelyn Dunbar, Li Zhong is a skilled and assured artist. His series of painting uses a traditional and very anciennt Chinese style of painting, ink wash painting, for a modern subject. The black ink is diluted to various concentrations and shades, and then is painted onto a highly absorbent and delicate rice paper. Once a stroke is painted, it cannot be modified or undone.
“The reason why I created the paintings was to show the benefits of a socialist country, and this is different from capitalism in the West. As an example, Chinese people are a people for whom solidarity is key; we are a hardworking people. During New Year’s Eve, Chinese families gather together. However, many people sacrificed this precious time with their families to help fight the virus. Many medical staff went to Wuhan. I was very touched by these actions. They are so noble, but they are just ordinary people like us. They are not only the medical staff, but also grassroots staff and officials, community staff, many people who gave up their traditional festival. And this is difficult for other countries to do,”
These were not straightforward portraits of key workers, but more snapshots of Chinese society in an extreme situation.
There are many parallels with Evelyn Dunbar’s work – especially the focus on gesture and body language to convey humanity and warmth, whilst earnestly working for a common good. This is particulatly, essential in Zi Zhong’s paintings as almost all the faces are obscured by masks, only eyes can be seen.
What I like about Li Zhong’s paintings as that his work doesn’t just focus on the heroic medical staff but, Like Evelyn Dunbar’s Land Army and WVS workers, those in the background fulfilling vital work, the volunteeers delivering madicines and sewing machinists making medical garments for the battle gainst Covid 19.
I think that we do need to think of this pandemic as a war, one in which we all work together for the sake of the whole community. Asian society are much better at focusing on the importance of the whole society over the wishes and desires of the indiviual. Yet, in the early months of lockdown in Britain the desire to help the vulnerable in society, to support medical staff to pull together was evident. Within 24 hours of a governmental call for citizens to join the NHS ‘volunteer army’, 500,000 people had signed up. By early April, over 750,000 were enlisted and started undertaking tasks such as delivering medication from pharmacies, driving patients to appointments, or making regular phone calls to isolated individuals. We was very grateful for the volunteers who fetched and delivered medicines to our home when a broken leg mean I could not leave my bedroom. Yet, somehow, people’s focus has been lost and confused over the summer in the muddled messages we receive from the authorities. Infection rates are rising again.
I think we could do with inspiring art like that of Evelyn Dunbar and Li Zhong to remind us that this particular battle, will not be over by Christmas. It’s a marathon and not a spirit. We have to get more creative in the ways in which maintain contact with those who are socially isolated. Donegal portrait artist, Andy Parsons, for example, is painting portraits of elderly volunteers over three sessions via Zoom.
However, when it all gets a bit too much to bear (as it does from time to time) we can always calm ourselves by immersing ourself in nature, or failing that looking at Evelyn Dunbar’s beautiful painting of a Sussex garden.
Read More about Evelyn Dunbar Below:-
http://evelyndunbar.com/ – includes a great short video about the rediscovery of her work too
See more of her paintings here https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-knitting-party-7693
Read more about Li Zhong below
Read about Andy Parson’s project