Review: Visual Arts Ivon Hitchens De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill- on-Sea

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The Independent Culture
The De La Warr Pavilion on the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea is one of the finest bits of Modernist architecture in the country. It's a fantastic building, all light and space and clean white lines, designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff and built under the enlightened patronage of the ninth Earl De La Warr in 1935. Since then its history has been slightly less stylish: the building was damaged in the war and then, in the Fifties, came the swirly carpets, wallpapers and partition walls.

These days things are looking up: the pavilion has been listed Grade I and, if a bid for lottery funding is successful, Bexhill will have the means to become a major cultural centre on the South coast. Some may question the sense in this. Sure, the building is worth preserving, but Bexhill is, above all else, a place where old people go on holiday, sometimes permanently. Fish-and-chip shops do well; tea shops do well; funeral parlours do well, but what chance a centre for contemporary art?

Happily, I think the chances are pretty good, thanks to the energy, enthusiasm and, crucially, the sensitivity of the management team headed by Caroline Collier. She has already begun to breathe the Modernist spirit back into the building with exhibitions this year of paintings by Ben Nicholson and, most recently, of photographs by the excellent Garry Fabian Miller, but she has done so without disturbing the tea dances and the evenings with Val Doonican and Ken Dodd. It's an odd combination, but the revitalised pavilion has the makings of a people's palace in the proper sense.

Their summer exhibition, which opened this week, is a group of 13 paintings by Ivon Hitchens, one of the most original and single-minded interpreters of the English landscape this century. Hitchens' Modernist credentials are clear enough: he was a key figure in the 7 & 5 Society, the group of painters and sculptors whose quiet progress towards abstraction defined English art in the Twenties. He was also a local artist, arriving in Sussex in 1940 after the bombing of his London studio, and staying there until his death in 1979.

Place was important to him. He was predominantly a landscape artist and often painted time and again at the same spot, or very near, never tiring of the combination of water and trees and, most importantly, of the space and movement between the two. His favoured format was long and thin, the canvas twice as long as tall; his favoured colours a range of low tones, at least at first: broad sweeps of brown and blue paint in horizontal bands, broken by vertical masses, a suggestion of trees, in olive green and the occasional flash of purple. They are pictures that work by suggestion; merging shifting images that just stay tied to the landscape, describing, as he put it, the place's "visual music rather than the facts".

As time progressed his palette brightened, especially from the mid-Sixties, when he discovered a new painting place on the Sussex coast at Selsey, but his fluid, painterly technique remained the same. Much of Hitchens' work looks unfinished in the conventional sense (a picture for him was never about the amount of paint) but the end results are rarely incomplete: he had a way of knowing when to stop.

This exhibition has been drawn from paintings still in the artist's estate: 13 from the many hundred that he left behind. A few are unresolved, but for the most part the selection is well made, including two rare figure paintings: a beauty from the Fifties and a vibrant Selsey picture After a Bathe from 1975 - proof that Hitchens was still painting at the top of his powers when he was 82. Quite what the octogenarians of Bexhill will make of it is another matter.

To 14 September. Tel: 01424 787900