Secular icons

Today, with a friend, I went to the Pallant Gallery in Chichester, which is a jewel of a place, to see three exhibitions (and eat an excellent lunch, thank you Nick).

The one that made the deepest impression, quietly amplifying in attention and memory, were the hospital drawings of Barbara Hepworth. These she worked on in 1948. They are pictures of surgeons and nurses preparing or conducting operations.

She, and her husband, Ben Nicholson, had recently had the experience of a major health crisis with their daughter that was both stressful in itself and had come near to beggaring them in the pre-National Health Service world.

These pictures were created, in part, out of Hepworth's gratitude for medical skill and for the birth of a National Health Service that made such skill available to all, free at the point of delivery.

The pictures of simplified forms with compassionate eyes and caring and skilled hands are like secular icons. They draw you into a world where you are suspended into the hands of others - witnessing to the reality that our lives depend on one another. They speak both of a time when such solidarity was struggled after and found and of a reality that is always present waiting to be rediscovered.

They have a beautiful luminosity - all grace is offered through light.

R. B. Kitaj's perspective, however, was more pessimistic as might befit an outsider, a Jew in the middle of the twentieth century. He could paint celebration but more likely is either a sense of foreboding or political and social criticism or both. He was a wonderful draughtsman as especially revealed in his pastels of which one example is here. Three women, possibly prostitutes, hang out together on the shore line, across the sea, obvious to only one, passes a military plane. The picture is entitled. 'The Rise of Fascism' and one of the sports of the exhibition was connecting title to subject matter (and this one happily defeats me). But the three vulnerable woman are fabulous: pensive, happily oblivious and anxious in turn.

The last small exhibition concerned a gift to the gallery of engravings, drawings and related memorabilia by Paul Nash. It was lovely to see this intimate, personal accumulation of works given by Nash to a friend over time. The engravings are wonderful, like this one: 'The Dyke by the Road' from 1922. I love their balance between being representational and recognising the abstract forms that abide in the world and through this balance achieving a beautiful simplicity of depiction. Nash was a 'neo-Romantic' and his worlds breathe with animation. There is nothing that is lifeless - everything is bound: energy in delight.

Amongst the memorabilia was a wonderful 'begging letter' for financial support for the first Surrealist exhibition in England at the base of which is a list of both the English and French organising committees - an extraordinary array of the gifted - an invitation to fund genius (and magic)!


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