Obituary: Ismond Rosen

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The Independent Online
Despite the cruel advance of motor neurone disease, Ismond Rosen was this year able to complete the editing and see to press the 3rd edition of what has become a standard text: Sexual Deviation (Oxford University Press). He also lived long enough to know that on 20 November - the German Day of Repentance - his crowning achievement, the sculptural triptych The Holocaust Chapel, most recently exhibited in St Paul's Cathedral, will find a permanent home in Berlin, the city where the Holocaust was conceived. It is improbable that there is any other Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatry who is also a distinguished Fellow of the Society of Portrait Sculptors.

Ismond Rosen was born in 1924 in Johannesburg to artistic Jewish parents who had emigrated to South Africa from Tsarist Russia. Family life was warm and supportive. He helped his parents run a hotel, and there learnt a basic tolerance towards every human condition. "I was expected to show a sense of responsibility and tact to the guests, who included artists and players from touring companies, and drunks who were potentially violent. All very good practise for dealing later with difficult psychiatric patients."

He was only six when he began to copy Africans, making clay figures, and was encouraged at high school by the eminent South African artist Walter Battis. He was academically outstanding, and his parents insisted that Latin must come before art. At 17 he began training at Wits Medical School. Hard work was learnt early and never unlearnt: ". . . cash up in the bar around midnight, write up the books, wake at 4 o'clock and go to the fruit market, and still be on time at the medical school at 8 o'clock."

There was an early conflict between medicine and art, till Rosen realised the two were not in conflict at all. He had to do both. He did his house training in a poor district of Johannesburg at a Community Health Centre. Its director was Helen Joseph who was to become a legendary mother to the anti-apartheid struggle. As a junior registrar he lived in the grounds of the Weskoppies Hospital: "Black patients tended the garden, where they grew their own marijuana. One of the pleasures was to do a lot of sculpture portraits, both of the patients and staff."

In 1951, eager for wider experience, Ismond Rosen arrived in England and was promised a job at the Maudsley & Bethlem Hospital in six months time. So he set off for Paris, joined classes at the Academie Julien and did some stone carving at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, as well as life drawing. ". . . and then south, at the first post-war Mardi Gras in Nice - and right through Italy, reading Freud in Florence in the morning winter sunshine, and on to Rome. There I had a dream which seemed to resolve my conscience. It said quite clearly - choose medicine."

Six years at the Maudsley were followed by work at the Portman Clinic, specialising in problems of sexual deviation and delinquency. He paid great attention to the treatment of abused children - and their abusers. Committing himself during those years to a punishing schedule, Rosen trained, at the same time, in association with Anna Freud, as a psychoanalyst. Complementing his psychiatry, he did psychoanalytic research at the Hampstead Clinic and practised privately, almost to the end of his life.

The Seventies were a period of immense creativity. He was concurrently chairman of the Paddington Centre for Psychotherapy, running a busy private practise and spending every spare moment preparing over 100 new works - stainless-steel sculptures, paintings, lithographs and etchings - for a major exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre. He even wrote papers for the Tate Gallery on the psychology of the painters Richard Dadd (who had been at Bethlem) and Otto Dix. "In the end I was exhausted, yet each activity refreshed me for the other." By now, he was also a devoted husband, and father to Hugh and Doraly - and even found time to make television programmes.

In 1975 one of the most perceptive appreciations of Ismond Rosen's life and work appeared in Stainless, the journal of the British Steel Corporation. His sculpture Civilisation is in South Africa's National Botanical Gardens. Sculpted heads of eminent medical colleagues grace many a British hospital lobby.

A close friend has described Ismond Rosen as a rare "renaissance man". True as that is, it sounds too forbidding. I knew him, even in his final illness, to be warm, gentle and irresistibly charming. He made others feel important, because to him, they were. His eyes still sparkled, even when his whole body was paralysed.

A clue to his self-deprecating wit is to be found in a self- published book of cartoons: How to understand your therapist and other erotica (1993). These, he writes, tongue in cheek, would have been published in Punch and the New Yorker, had he overcome his inhibition to send them.

Ismond Rosen's soul finds ultimate expression in his Holocaust triptych (completed over the last decade). The bronze figures left his house for Berlin, providentially, on the day his body was taken to its final resting place. His very last creative act, when only his left hand could still move, was to design, in steel and marble, the altar to stand near the triptych in the recently restored Kreuzkirche in the multi-ethnic suburb of Kreuzberg.

The three figures depict the experience of Christ in the Holocaust. Jesus, the Jew, would have died in the gas-chambers. The first figure, Revelation, depicts Christ's insight into his true identity; the second, Acroscity, a neologism of cross and atrocity, points to the debased values of the Nazi era; the third, Echo the Survivor, celebrates the qualities of survival and spiritual endurance both of Christ and of the Jewish people in the face of the most terrible cruelty and destructiveness. This vision of risen life, struggling to be free, takes Jewish-Christian dialogue far beyond itself, into the ultimate human mystery of hope against hope.

Ismond Rosen, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and artist: born Johannesburg 2 August 1924; Senior Registrar, Maudsley Hospital 1952-58; Research Psychoanalyst, Hampstead Clinic 1967; Consultant Psychiatrist, Paddington Centre for Psychotherapy 1958-84, Chairman 1973-84; married 1963 Ruth Abromowitz (one son, one daughter); died London 16 October 1996.

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