When the English sculptor Barbara Hepworth was first invited to visit a hospital operating theatre and study surgeons at work, she reacted with horror. Her young daughter, Sarah, had, after all, recently been hospitalised in 1944, stricken with a bone infection called osteomyelitis. But even at that stage, when Sarah was bandaged “in plaster of Paris from head to toe”, Hepworth realised that “the moulding of plaster jackets … was very near to my own profession.”
Her fascination deepened when she met the surgeon Norman Capener, who transferred Sarah from a small Cornish hospital to a larger orthopaedic institution in Exeter. An amateur painter himself, Capener had an admirably enlightened interest in modern art. He told Hepworth’s husband Ben Nicholson that in her sculpture “there is a very striking similarity to Bach’s more abstract work.” And when the cost of Sarah’s prolonged illness mounted to an alarming £300, he waived his surgeon’s fee and began buying Hepworth’s work.
The British National Health Service, which the artist passionately supported, was not created until 1948, and until then she and Nicholson struggled to pay their daughter’s medical bills. But in 1947, when Capener visited St Ives to recover from jaundice, Hepworth’s involvement with hospitals intensified. Capener suggested that she “must see directly the work of surgeons in action”. After initially rejecting it as “a grim idea”, Hepworth began exploring the operating theatre and produced her first hospital drawing in November of that year.
By the time she finished, two years later, almost 80 drawings testified to her profound and fruitful engagement with the vital significance of surgery. A superb exhibition of these images, now at Hepworth Wakefield, proves that they occupy an outstanding place in her oeuvre. Breaking away from the purged abstract forms she favoured as a sculptor, Hepworth concentrated here on human figures wholly absorbed in the drama of reconstructive operations. Haunted by memories of Sarah’s illness, she insisted that witnessing “any element of catastrophe would be impossible for me”. But the drawings now assembled at Wakefield, whether swiftly sketched on paper or executed with greater deliberation on board, reveal a tenacious and heartfelt response to the surgeons’ endeavours.
In my new book The Healing Presence of Art, I give Hepworth’s drawings a prominent place in the history of western art in hospitals. On one level, she was fascinated by the links between the activities in the operating theatre and her own work as a stone carver. In a drawing called “Reconstruction”, the surgeon looks like a sculptor hewing with a hammer and chisel. Hepworth may well be the masked female figure gazing at the scene with extraordinary intensity. Her eyes are as piercing as they appear in the mesmeric 1950 “Self-Portrait” also displayed in the show. Yet on the whole, she excludes herself from these images and focuses on the tasks enacted by the medical team. Enthralled by the hushed and attentive atmosphere in the operating theatre, Hepworth views the surgeons as mysterious figures engaged in complex, elaborate performances.
At moments, their bleached uniforms lend them an almost ghostly air. They seem haunted by their roles in life-or-death dramas, and they can appear on the verge of vanishing in the luminous chamber. Hepworth accentuates their vulnerability by using a razor-blade to scratch the surfaces she has prepared with a mixture of gesso, pastel and oil paint. But there is nothing violent about her vision of surgical work. Even when an image has a title as daunting as “Fenestration of the Ear (The Hammer)”, it does not threaten us at all. The impressive strength of the man wielding his instrument in a drawing called “Tibia Graft” is bound up with his resolute attempt to transform the life of his silent, helpless patient.
Time and again, Hepworth focuses eloquently on the surgeons’ hands. Whether they are seen preparing themselves in a powerful drawing titled “Prevision”, or engrossed in an intricate operation, the mastery of fingers and thumbs is seen as crucial. They hold the patients’ future in the balance, and the overall drama adds up to a compelling spectacle. Physically close to each other, the participants in these operations are all co-operating with a single goal in view. Tense and suspenseful, one drawing shows a small, focused light attached to a man’s head as he pursues an especially delicate goal. Another surgeon stares through the barrel of an optical device to obtain a close-up view of a minuscule body-part.
Even so, Hepworth herself never loses sight of the overall ambition behind these performances: a tender and beneficent determination to mend broken bodies. In her redemptive images, the surgeons’ devotion to their tasks ends up charged by an almost sacramental significance.
Until February 3, www.hepworthwakefield.org