By Gareth Stevens 

“The impulse to make paintings precedes reason. An artist often needs to make work while waiting for a particular imperative to make itself felt.”
Laetitia Yhap

Having moved to Hastings in 1967 it took seven years before Laetitia Yhap found the theme and focus for what turned out to drive the next two decades or so of her creative practice.

One day in 1974 she crossed the road to go and sit for a while on the fishing beach without any artistic purpose but happened to have a pencil and an old brown envelope in her bag. She explains that she had never had any intention to become absorbed with the work of the fishing fleet, but through that first drawing with improvised materials she says that “In one heightened moment I experienced something like an awakening.”

On viewing the exhibition, I was beset with an overwhelming longing to see the paintings in the flesh. As ever, you always want what you can’t have, and whilst, of course, Hastings Museum have done a good thing by hosting this show online, it left me aching to be in a room surrounded by the works themselves.

Uncondescendingly charming, every custom shaped painting depicts an almost tableau-like scene playing out on Hastings beach. Yhap’s complex compositions cast The Stade as a stage and each one recreates the ‘theatre’ of the fishermen’s interwoven relationship with the sea. The artist says that it was the “the intricacy of their existence” which fascinated her. “These days there are not many activities that are as archetypal or a primal as this [commercial fishing] in this country.” she says. In many ways Yhap’s oeuvre documents an artisanal industry under threat from new technology and the move towards large scale trawling. There is a certain mournfulness and introspection seeping out of each figure in her paintings which not only bears testament to this, but also speaks of the sheer hard work and tenacity of the depicted men.

As well as featuring an essay by Yhap and photos of her work, the visitor can also view two films: The Catch and A Girl Ashore – Laetitia Yhap at 80 by Mark French. These films tell the story of how she became submerged in the working world of Hastings’ fishermen, what compelled her to want to celebrate this through painting and touchingly recounts how the fishing community welcomed her unconditionally.

This is great work that implicitly argues that Art should be put to the service of the local community and used to document change.

To view this exhibition, you can visit the Hastings Museum & Art Gallery’s website until 9th May 2021. Whilst the website provides a hub to the show and features two short films, the paintings are best viewed through the museum’s Facebook page here 

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