Suffering for their art.. A new exhibition compares depictions of military surgery now and 100 years ago

ENTERING the small room that houses “War, Art & Surgery” at the Hunterian Museum in London, the visitor encounters two images hung one above the other. On top, in sepia tones, is “The Birth of Plastic Surgery” (pictured), painted in 1916 by Henry Tonks; below, strikingly similar though tinted in the blues and greens of the modern operating theatre, is “Hands, hands, hands”, by Julia Midgley, a contemporary artist. Her work has been paired with Tonks’s in this thoughtful show marking the centenary of the start of the first world war. The public might be forgiven for growing a little weary of the anniversary, but here at the Royal College of Surgeons, the subject is approached in an unusual light.

Tonks, who was a surgeon himself as well as a subtle and perceptive artist, was not indulging in hyperbole in his painting’s title. The image depicts the operating theatre of Harold Gillies, the pioneer of facial reconstructive surgery. The two first met at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, where Gillies was developing the techniques that laid the foundation for modern surgeons’ ability to rebuild the human face, using as his subjects the young men who had been horribly disfigured in the trenches.

“The Birth of Plastic Surgery” gives way, in this exhibition, to a wall of the remarkable pastel drawings Tonks made of the soldiers’ injuries. (The exhibition catalogue also shows photographs of the wounded and the work performed on them; it, much more than the exhibition, is not for the faint of heart.)

Tonks’s drawings, which have rarely been seen together in this way, are both accurate and humane. The eyes gazing out of shattered faces show confusion, fear—and then, just sometimes, when the surgeon’s work has been completed, hope, as in the images of Robert Davidson, who was serving as a medical orderly when he was wounded in 1916, losing his whole upper lip and left cheek. Gillies’s work enabled Davidson to “speak his native brogue again”, as the surgeon noted.

Opposite Tonks’s images hang those of Ms Midgley, who retired last year as Reader in Documentary Drawing at Liverpool School of Art & Design, and who previously worked as artist in residence at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals Trust. For this project, which “doffs its cap to Tonks”, as she says, she spent time not only with wounded servicemen and women at Headley Court in Surrey, where the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre is based, but also at Strensall Camp in Yorkshire, observing “Hospex” training—simulations in which amputee actors, equipped with elaborate prosthetics and body paint, help train military medical personnel to evacuate the wounded from Afghanistan and other conflict zones. And it was at the Royal College of Surgeons itself that she observed high-intensity refresher courses for army surgeons. Her work is not as graphic as that of Tonks, not least because facial injury is much rarer in 21st-century warfare. Improvised explosive devices are modern war’s most destructive weapon, so much of Ms Midgley’s work focuses on limb amputation and its after-effects.

Tonks did not think that his work should be exhibited. “They are, I think, rather dreadful subjects for the public view,” he said. But the Hunterian Museum, with a collection that bridges the worlds of art and science by illustrating the history of surgery and people’s fascination with their own anatomy, provides a thought-provoking setting. Ms Midgley’s delicate but forceful work is proof, if such were needed, that the courageous eyes into which Tonks looked so clearly still hold the artist’s gaze 100 years later.

“War, Art & Surgery” is at the Hunterian Museum, in London, until February 14th 2015

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