In the painting ‘The Mocking of Christ with the Virgin and Saint Dominic’ (1439-1443), by Fra Angelico, a seated Jesus’ is shown humbly accepting ridicule and violence - presumably from those who have rejected his message. His tormentors are depicted as a disembodied head and hands that hover around him; spitting in his face and striking him repeatedly. Whilst compressing the narrative of his abuse into one pictorial frame this device also serves to call attention to the instruments of the violence against him, namely the hands that beat him. Jesus’ hands are not raised in defence, instead they hold onto symbolic religious objects; and as the violence is meted out he remains utterly passive, in something of a religious rapture.
It is this ability to focus on the very essence of a situation, so evident in Fra Angelico’s frescos, that is also abundant in Barbara Hepworth Hospital Drawings - currently on view at The Hepworth Wakefield. In works such as ‘Concentration of Hands II’ (1948), Hepworth also isolates these exacting implements. In some respects the hands she depicts are also performing violence against the body (cutting it open for example), but in this instance the intention is to heal. This is why Hepworth’s concentration on the hands is so important, it could suggest that, apart from our mouth, (which are almost always muted by a mask in these drawings) they are our principal implement by which we impact and mould our realities. Stylistically speaking Hepworth fades back the presence of the body, reducing it to an indication, a mere outline. Pictorially the hands pop forward; formed through light and shadow they become utterly sculptural, almost glowing in their own religiosity.
There is another key component to this essentialising methodology, and this is Hepworth’s depiction of the doctors and nurses eyes. Once again she fades other features back, and uses an application of detail to pick them out. And what character these eyes have! Has there ever been such a depiction of utter concentration in all of contemporary art’ It is as if the doctors gazes could make incisions themselves. This is perfectly illustrated in ‘Tibia Graft’, (1949), where the doctor leans over the patient, entirely intent on completing his task, totally aware that his actions have enormous implications for the life of this person.
Rarely brought together - and not greatly known outside of Hepworth’s wider practice as a sculptor - these drawings/paintings are completely absorbing. They make for a fascinating exhibition, carefully curated and beautifully installed. They came about after a she and her husband Ben Nicholson struck up a friendship with Norman Capener, a doctor who treated their daughter Sarah Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter. He subsequently invited Hepworth to observe a variety of surgical procedures from which she produced around 80 works.
As these drawings are mostly quite small and highly detailed they invite the viewer closer to inspect the artist’s mark making. Here we find a delightful detail, that through her gestures she has incised through layers into the board itself, thus echoing the very process that the doctors are performing on the patients and once again recalling the effects that are possible with our great tool of all - our hands.