London, 17 June 1994
Journalist Daniel Soave
When painter Susannah Fiennes first picked up Jung Chang’s internationally acclaimed novel Wild Swans, she little realised the effect it was to have on her. Inspired by its vivid evocations of China’s past and people, she won the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Travel Award last year and set off to portray the Chinese exactly as she found them.
“I was so moved by this personal account of the tumultuous history and oppression of the Chinese that I wanted to paint people from different generations and backgrounds, and show how this suffering was revealed physically,” she explains. “People show their lives in their faces. With each person I painted, it was their character I sought. The position of their nose, the size of their mouth, these were the things that marked them as individuals and told their story.”
Susannah’s two-month expedition took her from remote mountainous regions to bustling city streets. Her watercolour street portraits range from wizened old cabbage-sellers to mischievous eight-year-olds; her landscapes shimmer with the brilliant light of the countryside. Pride of place in the exhibition goes to her strong oil portrait of Jung Chang’s mother, Mrs Xia De-hong, whom she met first in London, and then visited in China.
Having left the Slade 11 years ago, Susannah was always confident in her knowledge of shape and form but something of China has rubbed off on her. “We were taught to be objective and analytical almost to the point that our personalities became submerged, but working in China has unlocked my responses. I was very influenced by the calligraphy everywhere, and I would feel my hand dancing across the page as I tried to capture the current of bicycle riders, often six deep, moving along the road like an endless frieze.”
Now back in London, Susannah is working on a series of large paintings using her thousands of sketches. “Perhaps I’ll use a huge Chinese brush,” she says. “They help you to move from the heart rather than the hand.”