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United in life, art, and death

03 May 2013

Fifty years ago, Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, fell in love with the work of the Polish artist Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. Then she fell for him, too, says Jonathan Evens


Painting from life: The Tryptich, 1967

Painting from life: The Tryptich, 1967

PAINTING, Blue Crucifixion, began the romance. Fifty years ago, Dr Cicely Saunders spotted it in the window of the Drian Gallery, in Bayswater, London, while driving past, and felt magnetically drawn to the painting. She parked her car and entered the gallery, just as its owners were about to close on what was the final day of the exhibition.

The founder of the modern hospice movement, Dame Cicely (as she was to become) was in the process of setting up St Christopher's Hospice, in south-east London. What she achieved there is a matter of record. What is less known is the part that art, and one artist in particular, played in that story.

The exhibition that Dame Cicely spotted, in 1963, was by the Polish émigré artist Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. Entranced by his work, she went from painting to painting, and - despite never having bought a painting before - emerged with Bohusz-Szyszko's Christ Calming the Waters.

What attracted her to his work was its resonance with what she planned to do at St Christopher's. In a letter to the artist the very next day, she wrote: "The message of your picture is so fundamental to what we are going to try and do, that I am certain that it was no mere chance that made me attracted by your pictures, and drew me to the gallery, the last evening before it closed."

What happened then was, eventually, to lead to a love not just of Bohusz-Szyszko's work, but of the man himself. He was profoundly moved by her letter, describing it "as the most important moment in all my artistic career", because "nothing is more important for the artist than feeling that he might be necessary for his brethren and serve them by his art."

He replied to her by offering an additional painting as a gift for the new chapel at St Christopher's. They met just before Christmas 1963, and they began a relationship that lasted until his death, at the hospice, in 1995.

OHUSZ-SZYSZKO became artist in residence at the hospice after it opened, with a studio on what is now Rugby Ward. Eventually, up to 80 of his paintings would be hung in the hospice. As he had a long-estranged wife in Poland (whom, as a devout Roman Catholic, he would not divorce, and continued to support), he, Dame Cicely, and another couple bought a house in Sydenham in 1969, which they shared, calling it their "kibbutz".

Bohusz-Szyszko's wife died in 1975, and the couple married five years later. For both of them, these years of late marriage were among the happiest of their lives. In 1998, after her husband's death, Dame Cicely made her first, and only trip to his native country. In the church in Bystrzyca (now Belarus) where Bohusz-Szyszko was baptised, she left a stone from his grave to symbolise his return home.

When they first met, Bohusz-Szyszko was an artist with an international reputation, who had mounted one-man exhibitions in Rome, Florence, Paris, Munich, and Hamburg. He was also the Principal of the Polish School of Art in London, supporting artists among the Polish diaspora community.

A former student, Halima Nałęc, went on to found the Drian Galleries, which became an outlet for the work of Polish artists, among others. Bohusz-Szyszko was also a driving force in the Association of Polish Artists in Great Britain, eventually being made the Honorary Chairman for life.

ROM the beginning of his career, Bohusz-Szyszko was a religious artist. Professor Tadeusz Pruszkowski said, in a 1939 review of Bohusz-Szyszko's first one-man exhibition, that he had "not set himself an easy task in introducing into the tradition of religious art the achievements of the modern approach to colour".

Lord Alistair Gordon wrote of the Drian Gallery exhibition, which had attracted Dame Cicely's attention, that Bohusz-Szyszko's "religious work has an ecstatic vision that is all joy and hope". He pointed out that Bohusz-Szyszko had been imprisoned by the Germans from 1939 to 1945, and said that to paint as he did showed the "measure of the man" - someone who had "seen a lot more of the Guernica side of life than most people".

Bohusz-Szyszko built up his expressionist-style paintings through a time-consuming process of painting, and over-painting, using bold, singing colours that enabled his figures to be illuminated from the paint structure itself rather than an external source of light. Professor Kenneth Coutts-Smith, writing in the journal Art & Artists, described Bohusz-Szyszko's synthesis of order and emotion, gesture and structure, as a "tentative approach toward a condition of grace".

Dame Cicely recalled that it "was not chance that brought me to the Drian Gallery at the end of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko's 1963 exhibition, and began the co-operation and the series of special gifts that have filled the Hospice with vibrant colour". Instead, as Douglas Hall, the first Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and author of Art in Exile: Polish painters in post-war Britain, has explained, the "Hospice, open to all but conducted with the ideal in mind of a contemplative and spiritual Christianity, provided a focus for Bohusz-Szyszko's own inclinations".

ST CHRISTOPHER's Hospice is committed to "total care". The vision is of a world in which all dying people, and those close to them, have access to appropriate care and support when they need it, wherever they need it, and whoever they are.

Dame Cicely introduced the idea of "total pain", which included the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions of distress. She re- garded each person, whether patient or staff, as an individual to the end.

She regarded Bohusz-Szyszko's paintings as an integral part of this medical programme - in particular, for the alleviation of social and spiritual pain. Hall has suggested that the paintings formed "a continuum of interest throughout the building, in which patients, their visitors, and the staff are all enveloped".

Dame Cicely wrote that the "pictures speak of beliefs challenged and confirmed in today's world, and have a continual impact on all who work and are cared for in the Hospice, and its thousands of visitors from all over the world".

The integration of the arts into a "total care" concept began - because of their personal relationship - on an idiosyncratic basis. These days, the integration continues, but on a more professional footing. Artists and art therapists run daily groups.

There is also a long-standing schools project, and an annual art partnership with the Royal Academy of Art. These involve capturing the views of dying people, and those who care for them, using various artistic media, including photography, quilt- making, painting, drawing, creative writing, and music-making.

The Director of Supportive Care at St Christopher's, Nigel Hartley, has written that "artists can bring a motivational energy and a positive experience both to patients who use a palliative care service, and also to the service itself. Through offering patients a new experience of themselves, at a time when they are dying, artists have the skill to change the nature of people's illness experience.

"Also, through introducing art and providing live music within the everyday fabric of the organisation, they can have a dynamic effect on the working environment in the palliative care service."

HE combined effect of Bohusz-Szyszko's 80 works at St Christopher's, when they were all in place, must have been overwhelming. Today, the number of paintings displayed has been reduced, and works are seen primarily on the north stairwell, in the Dame Cicely Saunders Room, and in the Education Centre.

Among the paintings on display are Triptych (1967), White Dove (1972), St Christopher (1970), and two portraits of Dame Cicely. "In recent years, St Christopher's has initiated a large arts programme, where patients and families, together with local community groups, work in partnerships to create art exhibitions," Mr Hartley says. "Much of the work created as part of this project is now exhibited in the hospice public areas, as part of a rolling programme."

Since his death, Bohusz-Szyszko has dropped out of public recognition. None the less, he remains a significant figure for Polish artists in the UK. His contribution - and, more widely, that of exiled Polish artists - to sacred art and commissioned church art in the UK would benefit from reassessment. Bohusz-Szyszko and other exiled Polish artists (such as Stanislaw Frenkiel, Adam Kossowski, Henryk Gotlib, Marek Zulawski, and Aleksander Zyw) were part of a consistent but under-recognised strand of artists' employing sacred themes which runs throughout the 20th century in the UK.

Bohusz-Szyszko's supreme achievement was the body of work at St Christopher's Hospice, but his work was also displayed at St John's, Hyde Park Crescent, London, during the incumbency of the Revd Cuthbert Scott.

His work was also championed and purchased by the Rt Revd John V. Taylor, while Bishop of Winchester, and, earlier, General Secretary to the Church Missionary Society. Bohusz-Szyszko's work formed part of the revival in church commissions in the UK, which began through the work of Bishop Bell and Dean Hussey, and which continues to the present day.

Bishop Taylor described Bohusz-Szyszko as "a profoundly spiritual painter . . . a supreme colourist", and a mystic whose paintings "are, in a sense, icons", which "call for contemplation". Noting the tactile pleasure in which Bohusz-Szyszko applied paint to canvas, Taylor said that his "is the art of a materialist who understands the divinity of matter in the manner of a mystic".

In his teaching Bohusz-Szyszko distinguished "vision" from "painting". "Painting vision," he said, "can be found exceptionally with these artists who found the means of artistic expression in themselves, as inner necessity, and not just through skilful use of the brush."

He was speaking from personal experience. His vision was that each crucifixion foreshadows resurrection - a truth that both he and Dame Cicely believed, and experienced for themselves as romance blossomed from that first glimpse of the Blue Crucifixion.

In her Templeton Prize speech, in 1981, Dame Cicely said: "God uses the losses of our lives and of our deaths to give us himself; he travels with us through our pains and sorrows. These are all filled with his redeeming strength, because he has suffered and died himself, and did so with no more than the equipment of a man. And he rose again.

"This is the message of the symbols that enlighten the hospice, the glowing pictures of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, saying without words that the resurrection and new life can be true for us all."


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