The art of war: 3 Evelyn Dunbar

In “The Art of War”, I put a work of art that has to do with the Second World War in the spotlight. The works I select may be propaganda pieces, antiwar works, or deal more objectively with the war and its aftermath. This week, Evelyn Dunbar’s The Queue at the Fish Shop (1944).

When the UK entered the war in 1939, the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) was established to keep artists from being killed fighting and to keep culture and art thriving through the war. War artists documented the causes, course and consequences of war for Great Britain, both by painting battle scenes and civilians’ experiences and contributions to the war effort. Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960) was the only woman war artist to consistently receive paid commissions during the war. Traditionally a nature painter, she became famous for her paintings of the home front, especially her unsentimental depictions of Women’s Land Army volunteers, who filled in for farm workers who had joined the armed forces.

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At first glance, The Queue at the Fish Shop shows a typical British wartime street scene. Women, children, and old men; an airman and a servicewoman passing by on more urgent business; white stripes on the pavement to help people navigate during the blackout. The street depicted, the High Street in the village of Strood, is in fact the A2 connecting London to Dover, and so to Nazi-occupied France. The troops evacuated at Dunkirk would have come back along this route, too.

Despite their location placing them at the very heart of the wartime nation, the crowd doesn’t seem particularly affected by the war. Fish was perishable and never rationed, but was a rare and expensive commodity because of the Royal Navy’s requisitioning of fishing boats and German interference on the North Sea. The people are used to queuing for fish and wait patiently, certain that the next delivery will come soon as the shop owner washes down the slabs in preparation. Famously, British people wouldn’t even move from their spot in the fish queue during an air raid; thus, the queue symbolizes not only wartime shortages and the difficulty of adapting to a new daily reality, but also the unflappable and brave nature of the British citizen, an image which would enter British postwar culture as part of the Myth of Blitz.

We could consider it a piece of propaganda, a nostalgic snapshot of bygone days when the nation was at her best (further enhanced by the knowledge that the beautiful medieval building housing the fish shop was demolished in the 1960s in a road-widening scheme). Dunbar painted herself as the servicewoman and her husband as the airman, whose position, close to the children, suggests he guarantees their future safety, just like they can count on the fish arriving soon from London’s fish markets. Her look directly into ‘the camera’ is impassive, but seems to challenge: how certain are we of the future? At the moment, the fish has yet to be delivered.

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