At the End of Life, the Artist is Necessary

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “clinical” may denote “expressing no emotion or feelings” or “showing no character and warmth.” The sentence that is given to illustrate its meaning is this: “We were going to paint our kitchen white, but we decided that would look too clinical.”

Do you ever wonder why hospitals and doctor’s offices are so drab? Why does there seem to be so little attention paid to aesthetics? What impact does this have on doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors?

One day, Cecily Saunders, the British pioneer of modern-day hospice care, was “magnetically drawn” to an oil painting in a gallery window. She was so taken by it that she parked her car and entered the gallery moments before they were closing on the last day of the exhibition. Cecily Saunders moved eagerly from painting to painting. The blue Crucifixion had been the piece to catch her eye from the window, but the piece she impulsively chose to purchase was of ‘Christ Calming the Waters.’

The following day, she wrote the following to the artist, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko:

Dear Professor Bohusz,

I bought your picture ‘Christ Calming the Waters’ at your exhibition at the Drian Galleries. I would like to thank you very much indeed for the inspiration that lies behind it, and to tell you how glad I am that I was attracted by what I could see in the windows of the gallery and went in and found it. It seems to me a most exciting and inspiring work and to have so much to convey on more than one level.

She proceeded to share with him that it was for the Chapel of a Hospice for patients with terminal cancer.

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.”

Soon after, the artist replied:

Dear Doctor Saunders,

I received your letter three days ago – and I did not reply immediately because I was too much moved by it and I wished to have time to think it over.

Look, my exhibition was a kind of ‘success’ in the sense of a ‘prestige’ and even financially. But, believe me, the most important moment in all my artistic career during forty years of my activity as a painter has been, without any exaggeration, your letter, Doctor Saunders. Because nothing is more important for the artist than the feeling that he might be necessary for his brethren and serve them by his art. Specially those of them who need more help than others.”

He went on to insist on donating an additional piece for St. Christopher’s Hospice.

There is so much here.

Cecily Saunders, in the midst of her pioneering work for the dying, had an existential epiphany about the meaning and value of her work through her encounter with Marian Bohusz-Szyszko’s paintings.

This anecdote epitomizes the eloquent line by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, “Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.”

The story equally reveals the truthfulness of Isak Dinesen’s line, “Throughout all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist; Give me leave to do my utmost.”

As time went on, St. Christopher’s Hospice was adorned with many works by Marian Bohusz-Szyszko (who Cecily eventually married). However, when I visited the hospice in 2016, our guide made only a passing reference to the artwork and noted that most of the pieces had been relegated to the basement storage following Cecily’s death.

I do not think this is ill-will toward her legacy nor is it a malicious attempt to deprive hospice patients of beauty. Rather, it is simply a reflection that those in charge today have yet to experience an aesthetic epiphany like Cecily did.

It is up to those who have been blessed with the feast of soul through such artistic encounters to maintain that the artist and his or her creation are necessary because those at the end of life deserve to experience “a most exciting and inspiring work [that has] so much to convey on more than one level.

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