The images from Ukraine do not leave much room for misunderstanding. War is still just war. As in previous centuries, civilians are brutally killed or starved, young boys die horribly, while soldiers and prisoners of war are humiliated or worse. All this can be seen day after day in pictures and videos that do not spare the viewer.
The English artist George Butler (37) brings out the same war in a different way, in delicate, often intimate pen drawings, sparsely colored with watercolor. He calls himself a report illustrator, ‘reporter’ instead of ‘reporter’. It is part of a long tradition, which, however, is almost extinct. In the 19th century – the newspaper was first on its way to becoming a mass media – the editors-in-chief of the major newspapers first artist reporters sat down to give readers an idea of the war theater far away. There was no photography yet.
“I’m just following in their footsteps,” Butler said via a video link from his London studio. “Basically, the way of working is still exactly the same. All you need is a pen, a piece of paper and sit down quietly with the one you want to draw. ‘ This method, he says, brings you very close to the other person. When you spend a little more time together, you get commitment.
His drawings testify to this. Like Olgas, for example, she is almost 100 years old. ‘Olga lived in a small apartment in Kiev with her daughter Valentina. She was very small and fragile, she could hardly get out of bed. I had to sit close to her to hear her. She would not answer any questions, she just said, “Listen to me.” And then she told her life story. Born in 1923, survived the Great Famine of the 1930s, served as a forced laborer in Nazi Germany during the war. She did not think it could happen again. ”
Butler was in Ukraine from mid-March to mid-April. In Butsa, Kyiv, Kharkiv. At checkpoints, in bomb shelters, on the market. Not in the firing line, but just behind. ‘I still can not compete with the cameras of the major international news teams that report on this. In addition, it becomes more interesting if you take a step back and start talking to people. ‘ History and image are always connected in his work. “Drawing is a wonderful excuse to listen to someone, and listening is a wonderful excuse to sit still and draw.”
After studying illustration at university, he traveled to areas such as Afghanistan, West Africa and Syria and won awards for his work. His book was recently published Drawn across borders, with drawings of refugees all over the world, people who have moved away from what is their home. ‘I’m attracted to this because these people are often misunderstood. They seem strange and distant. ‘
Oddly enough, he says, he often feels closer to such a person than to an acquaintance living in London. ‘I think it has something to do with authenticity. If you sit down to talk and draw, you will quickly have a conversation about life in places where emotions run high. I want to show that despite the situation these people are in, there is a huge amount of generosity. All the pictures you see on the front page of the newspaper are true. But there is more humanity and optimism than we may realize. ‘
In some of his drawings from Ukraine, the contrast between the hard motif and his soft brush is almost confusing. A mass grave in Butsha, for example. The Russians had just been chased away, people who had been brutally murdered were lying on the streets. All the residents had turned up, Butler says, to look at the opening of the mass grave, to look for the missing. The bodies were placed on a scaffolding.
“It felt important for me to stand still and draw it. It was an incredibly gloomy and sad moment, a moment of historical significance. What I then want, and that I think is a recurring theme in my work, is to portray the horrible in such a way that people can look at it. Instead of the camera lens, I am a kind of intermediate lens that translates the repulsive into something you can even show your children.
With dip pen
George Butler draws on the spot with a dipping pen and Indian ink on large sheets of A2 paper. He usually colors the drawing later with watercolor, in the hotel room or at home.