On the 29th February 2016, I assisted in the making of a documentary. It would centre on an artist, now deceased, who was having her work exhibited in London for the first time. Before that day I had never heard of Fang Zhaoling; and when that day ended, I was disappointed that I hadn’t. After asking around after the artist, however, I saw that I wasn’t alone in my obliviousness to her life and art. So in honour of International Women’s Day, I wanted to attempt to shed a small light on a woman who definitely deserves to be celebrated.
Fang Zhaoling was born in the Chinese city Wuxi in 1914 and was the eldest child of two daughters. Despite the fact that she was born near the beginning of the twentieth century, she found herself fortunate enough to have two parents who were ahead of their time. Her mother’s progressive views were not constricted by the society that she lived in and when she began to notice her daughter’s desires for art, she fanned the flame instead of extinguishing it. This encouragement led not only for Fang to fearlessly practice art, but to travel to Manchester University in the England to study it further.
Underlining this extraordinary support that Fang was given by her mother was an event that would change Fang’s life- and influence her work- forever. Before her mother’s encouragement to pursue art, her father was assassinated in front of both wife and Fang, when she was only eleven years old. The family was in the midst of the Chinese Revolution and unfortunately her father was entangled in the complex web of it.
This only makes her mother’s bravery for endorsing Fang to follow her dreams that more moving- she didn’t let her grief cloud her judgement for what is best for her daughter.
Fang Zhaoling not only had the pleasure of studying what she loved while at University- she also met her future husband. Tragically, war and loss continued to follow her. The break out of the Second World War caused her and her husband to flee to many countries (America, Canada) before making their back to China. Fang was even pregnant with their first child during part of the journey.
As Fang and her husband settled back in China, her husband ran a business whilst Fang focused on her art, both of them multitasking in caring for their eight children (eight. EIGHT!) Tragedy was not done with Fang yet though, as it came into her life a second time when her husband died in the 1950s. Not only was Fang now single handedly raising eight children, but was also facing the prospect of financial turmoil. Remarkably, her determination never faltered as Fang managed to seek support in raising her children, took on her husband’s role in running his business… and still found the time to paint.
What I find the most stunning about Fang Zhaoling’s life is that she was able to turn her pain and grief into something optimistic in her work. Despite the fact that Fang had lost two loved ones and had lived, fled and suffered the consequences of several wars, her work focuses on themes of the opposite: people surrounded by loved ones on Chinese rural landscapes that seem untouched by war.
Take her piece Homecoming. Although the colours are bright and the calligraphy is subtle, the feeling of resolution in it is still plainly evident. Several villagers are standing on rocks, waving to a fleet of boats coming to shore, carrying loved ones that have been away for probably years. Note how Zhaoling doesn’t choose to focus the painting on the suffering of the people waving goodbye to loved ones as they sail out of their lives, probably forever. Zhaoling focuses instead on resolutions, on the immeasurable joy of loved ones a tide away from their families’ embraces. It is not a cruel cold Farewell, but a beautiful warm Homecoming.
What I find the most remarkable about Fang Zhaoling’s life is not just the fact that she’s an inspirational woman- it’s that her mother was one too and how that helped her become the incredible artist she was. She passed on this legacy to her twin daughters too, one of whom is Chinese politician Anson Chan. After all, women are their most successful when they’re building each other up, not tearing each other down.
Photos were taken by Zira Mello (contact: email@example.com) from Macey and Sons exhibit of Fang Zhaoling, which ran from the 29th Feb- 5th March at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery London.