Concentration of Hands I by Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

Concentration of Hands I, 1948, Pencil and oil on plywood, 53.5 x 40 cm, The British Council, P53, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness; Photo: © The British Council, Courtesy of the British Council Collection

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The Healer’s Art

Commentary by

Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings are a carefully-observed homage to the ‘craft’ of surgery. The drawings present her vision of the surgeons as followers of a vocation, connected to the artist’s vocation—‘to restore and to maintain the beauty and grace of the human mind and body’ (2013 [1953]). They also coincide with a pivotal moment in British medical history: the creation of a national publicly-funded health service (the NHS).

Commentators on the drawings often note how much they resemble the great religious paintings of the Renaissance (Launer 2016: 367). Hepworth responds to the profound seriousness, the shared encounter with mystery, in the everyday work of the operating theatre. The grouped figures’ reverence is suggested not only by their bowed heads, but also in the intense work of their hands, at the centre of this and many of the other hospital drawings. The surgeon’s work is his or her ‘concentration’. The face of the patient does not appear, but it is hard to tell where the bodies of the surgeons end and the body of the patient begins. Even at the point where there is the greatest imbalance of agency and power, the patient’s life in the surgeons’ hands, we are reminded of their shared embodiment, and hence of their shared vulnerability. We are—including Hepworth, the observer who identifies with the surgeons and recalls her own young daughter’s recent major surgery—all in this together.

As I write these commentaries under Covid-19 lockdown, Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings have acquired new poignancy and urgency. The presence of the surgeons’ masks—which in 2020 have come to signify their, not the patient’s, need for protection—draws our thoughts, not only to the fragility of the individual body under the surgeons’ knives, but also to a societal crisis in which the sense of being overwhelmed and consumed (Psalm 90:7) and of crying ‘how long?’ (v.13) is pervasive.

Concentration of Hands engages the crisis at its heart, and concentrates attention on active compassion and hope for healing. It bespeaks the compassion for which the psalmist cries out, divine compassion mediated in the ordinary actions of vulnerable hands that exercise the ‘sharp compassion of the healer’s art’ (Eliot, ‘East Coker’ IV).

 

References

Eliot, T. S. 1940. ‘East Coker’ (London: Faber & Faber)

Hepworth, Barbara. 2013 [1953]. ‘Sculpture and the Scalpel’, Tate Etc., 27: 13

Launer, John. 2016. ‘The Hospital Drawings of Barbara Hepworth’, Postgraduate Medical Journal, 92: 367–68


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