Thursday, November 1, 2012

Barbara Hepworth - The Hospital Drawings

Barbara Hepworth, Quartet – Arthroplasty, 1948. Oil and pencil on board.
Quartet – Arthroplasty, detail
At the centre of the frenzied lines and smeared paint of Quartet – Arthroplasty, is a remarkable stillness and sense of calm. The drawing, by Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), shows a group of surgeons performing a complex operation to relieve the diseased joints of the arthritic patient, but there is no blood or gore to be seen. The focus is the beautifully drawn left hand of the surgeon in the centre. Where the scalpel connects with the patient the white of the ground shines brightly through with an almost religious glow - but here the miracle is science, the skill of the surgeons, and the calm coordination between. The last factor transfixed the artist and is emphasised by the title, which alludes to the harmonious and synchronised movements of the figures and intuitive understanding between them reminiscent of a musical quartet (though in fact there are six figures depicted). Barbara Hepworth later wrote of the experience of watching the surgery in her autobiography:

In 1947 it was suggested to me that I might be interested in watching an operation in a hospital. 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 by two things: first the extraordinary beauty of purpose between human beings all dedicated to saving 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.

Barbara Hepworth photographed in the early 1970s
The piece has come out of The Higgins store and travelled to The Hepworth Wakefield to feature in a new exhibition which runs from 27th October until 3rd February. Hepworth – The Hospital Drawings is the largest gathering of these powerful studies and reveals a very different side to an artist best known for the organic forms and highly finished surfaces of her sculptures such as The Higgins own Four Figures Waiting of 1968.

Quartet isn’t the only work out and about, the Dulwich Picture Gallery are currently borrowing two of our works by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) for their exhibition Cotman in Normandy which continues until 13th January 2013.

Barbara Hepworth, Four Figures Waiting, 1968. Cast bronze.

Kristian Purcell 
Curatorial Assistant 

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