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Sometimes the expanse of a cathedral makes me feel as if I’m a pixel among millions, soaked with awe, while, peculiarly, it also seems claustrophobic, oppressive. I enter because I’m ‘into God’ – it would be sacrilegious to walk by the edifice.
But while passing over the threshold of Chichester Cathedral on a bone-biting cold day I felt flashes of warmth and welcome. Perhaps, I wondered during my visit, this inviting spirit of place was at least partly sparked by the modern religious artwork displayed, which cannot fail to please the senses. The church has an applauded history of commissioning modern religious art for inspiration and restoration projects. Even humanists who don’t ‘do God’ couldn’t fail to appreciate the poignancy of the work.
The nature and identity of the artists, and the messages, techniques and colours of the modern work displayed ensure that the creations are powerful means of giving Christianity, indeed religious spirituality, contemporary relevance, transcending cultural and language barriers. Given that people worship through their senses, can we deny that the air and physicality of our environment affect us?
Moreover, if modern religious art depicts ordinary people in familiar settings, as some of the Chichester commissions do, this makes religion all the more meaningful. ‘Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible’, the Swiss painter Paul Klee believed. After all, Christ, the image of the invisible God, moved among ordinary people, connecting with the ‘here and now’.
Few would doubt the beauty and purity of the painting of the baptism of Christ, by the exiled German Jewish artist Hans Feibusch (1951), in the Baptistery and the virginal simplicity of the font sculpted in Cornish stone and beaten copper by John Skelton (1983). Equally moving is the altar frontal, The Icon of Divine Light in St Clement’s Chapel, painted by Cecil Collins in 1973. Collins describes his work as a ‘vision of God as the divine sun, the renewer of the world, the eternal spring time…’
In the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene hangs the Noli Me Tangere by Graham Sutherland (1960) portraying the scene in the garden on Easter morning when Mary Magdalene doesn’t at first recognize and then seeks to cling to the risen Lord. Outside the Chapel of St John the Baptist we discover a window designed by Mark Chagall. The artist came from a family of Hassidic Jews who interpret the divine in the context of song and dance, a theme illustrated in the stained glass inspired by Psalm 150: ‘…let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’.
Geoffrey Clarke, whose grandfather was a church furnisher, designed altars, communion rails, candle-stands and other furnishings for the Cathedral. John Piper created a high altar tapestry (1966).
Recently, the Cathedral awarded the commission to design an artwork for the space above the Arundel screen at the front of the nave to the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa (b. 1955). Plensa’s Together reflects what’s imbued in the Cathedral’s spirit of place. The form is the hand, three metres high in stainless steel, of the resurrected Christ, raised in the sign of forgiveness and blessing, structured with letters from the eight alphabets of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese and Chinese. Plensa explains that: ‘alphabets are a perfect metaphor for the different origins, cultures and backgrounds that comprise humanity, which is the fundamental idea behind Together, and is in harmony with Chichester’s role as a world Cathedral’.
The commission is in memory of Walter Hussey (1909–85), the Dean of Chichester from 1955 to 1977, revered for his role in encouraging the renaissance of modern religious artwork for churches. The art historian Kenneth Clarke referred to Hussey as ‘the last great patron of art in the Church of England’.
Hussey first encouraged the rebirth when he was Vicar at St Matthew’s, Northampton and commissioned Henry Moore to carve a Madonna and Child (1944), and Benjamin Britten to compose the anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, a setting of a poem by Christopher Smart (1722–51). Hussey’s appointment to Chichester Cathedral was influenced by George Bell, at that time the Bishop and a patron of the arts for churches. Both Hussey and Bell agreed with Hans Feibusch, who wrote in his book Mural Painting (1949): ‘The men who come home from the war, and all the rest of us, have seen too much horror and evil; the voice of the Church should be heard loud over the thunderstorm; and the artist should be her mouthpiece, as of old…’
Speaking on the BBC in 1967, Hussey suggested: ‘I think that the products of all sorts of artists can be some of the highest work which is done by human beings, and therefore I think it makes an extraordinarily appropriate symbol of what man offers to God… it is tremendously important that the contemporary artist should be brought, in this as in every age, to express the truths about God in a contemporary idiom’.
Fortunately Hussey was not only a patron of ecclesiastical art, he was also a groundbreaking patron of the arts, more generally, in Chichester. For while Hussey was encouraging the roots of modern religious art in the Cathedral, he befriended many artists and collected art for his personal enjoyment. The seed of his collection was planted in 1932 when, after seeing the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s production of Romeo and Juliet, Hussey purchased the costume design for Romeo for ten shillings. Thereafter he acquired what he liked – not what he thought he ought to like for the sake of fashion or investment – building up a rich and eclectic collection of predominately modern art.
In light of Hussey’s close involvement with the local community and his concern that Pallant House in Chichester, a Grade I listed Queen Anne townhouse, had been neglected, he offered most of his collection to the city on condition that the house was restored and used as a gallery for the collection. Hussey reckoned modern and contemporary art could live comfortably together in historic, furnished interiors as he had demonstrated with the work he’d commissioned for the Cathedral.
The Pallant House Gallery – now run by an independent trust – opened in 1982, and has continued steadily to acquire other, mostly modern, collections, and accept gifts and loans. In 2006, a new and exceptionally light and airy wing, designed by Long and Kentish in association with Professor Sir Colin St John Wilson (who designed the new British Library), opened, allowing more space for exhibitions, events and education. The Gallery won the 2007 Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries. Judges described is as a ‘jewel of a gallery’, commending its ‘thoughtful and intelligent’ curatorship and warm and welcoming space.
Despite the emphasis on the modern and the contemporary at the Gallery, there are also older works of art. Notable are the Geoffrey Freeman Collection of Bow Porcelain and the Arthur Miller collection of 18th-century Waterford crystal.
But the prime contribution to the region of the Pallant Gallery is the exceptional modern work on view, which, although not a comprehensive encyclopaedia of modern art, presents a wondrously diverse choice of paintings, watercolours, prints and sculpture by many of the leading figures of 20th-century, and increasingly of 21st-century, art. We see choice examples of Cubist, Fauvist, Surrealist, Post-Impressionist and Pop art – the abstract, the figurative, and the realistic. There are rural and urban landscapes, and still lifes. We discover a never-ending quest for experimentation and progression, sometimes involving returns to the more traditional and reflecting social and political quandaries and movements as well as historical cultures (African tribal art, for instance).
Hussey’s collection presents work by war artists such as Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious as well as the work of Ceri Richards, John Piper and Henry Moore. The substantial bequest in 1989 from Charles Kearley, a local property developer, racehorse owner and hotelier, presents work by Paul Klee and Ferdinand Legér, which initially widened the Gallery’s scope. The architect Colin Wilson’s donation of over 400 artworks features Peter Blake, David Bomberg, Patrick Caulfield, Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj, Howard Hodgkin, Walter Sickert and Eduardo Paolozzi. In addition, the Golder-Thompson Gift has enabled contemporary works by Scottish artists to be displayed.
Artists’ residencies and community projects ensure that the Gallery is alive and receptive to acquiring the new and innovative, such as works by the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy and photographer Joy Gregory. Changing exhibitions are imaginative and not likely to be found elsewhere in the UK. On show at present, for example (9 July–2 October) are iconic works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and later (22 October – 29 February) the Gallery will host a major exhibition of Edward Burra’s vibrant paintings of the seedy underworld of urban life, with images of people in bars and clubs in 1930s Harlem, as well as his landscapes and still life work.
At both the Gallery and the Cathedral, without vying for space or standing in a long line for a ticket, one savours feasts of artistic endeavour. We witness art history in the making, and embrace artistic ventures afresh, in peace and calm.
Media credit: © Chichester Cathedral, www.chichestercathedral.org.uk