For two years from mid-1947, Barbara Hepworth made a series of drawings based on her observations of surgical operations. The drawings came about through Hepworth’s friendship with Norman Capener, the surgeon who had earlier operated on her daughter Sarah for osteomyelitis. He suggested that because of her sculptural interest in anatomy Hepworth might like to watch an operation. She observed operations first at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter, and later in London at the National Orthopaedic Hospital and the London Clinic. She made notes in the operating theatre with a pen and sterilised pad, and executed the works immediately afterwards while the scene was fresh in her memory.
Hepworth explained the connection between these drawings and her sculptural concerns: ‘At first I was very scared, but then I found there was such beauty in the coordinated human endeavour in the operating theatre that the whole composition — human in appearance — became abstract in shape. I became completely absorbed in two things: first, the extraordinary beauty of purpose between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life; and secondly by the way this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work.’1
Blue and green (arthroplasty) shows an operation on a dysfunctional joint. In this work Hepworth sought to communicate the way in which the highly trained, cooperative activity of the medical staff engaged in their task resulted in their unconsciously harmonious grouping, or physical disposition in space. Her technique was to prepare the cardboard surface with thin layers of oil paint in muted monochromatic colours. She then drew the figures with pencil, scraping back the oil paint to produce highlights as the drawing proceeded. This method allowed her to treat the group of separate figures as a single entity, the pencil line capturing the rhythm between the figures while the forms seem to emerge from the background as if carved in low relief.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. Barbara Hepworth, Barbara Hepworth: A pictorial autobiography, Adams & Dart, Bath, 1970, p. 50.