To examine how art is shaped by war, outside of the official commemorative projects of the First World War. The purpose of this paper is to examine the experience of a surgeon/artist who knew first-hand the horror of industrial scale of destruction. It speculates on how his medical education and surgical knowledge in the treatment of the casualties informed his art and considers how such scientific discourses may have contributed to a new modernist language.
The double career of J.W. Power – a surgeon then an artist – provides a case study to probe such questions. The paper speculates about the connections between these different careers, and considers the implications of becoming an artist for someone who had pre-war university-training, medical expertise and experience as a war surgeon. In particular, consideration is given to how surgical knowledge and contemporary medical debates may have informed a group of later paintings.
A group of J.W. Power’s late paintings stand apart from his other subjects as they suggest states of physical or psychological damage. Indeed by the 1930s shell shock was recognised as a war-related psychological injury. These paintings then may not only be an act of remembrance, but also potentially a reflection on that new discourse.
It remains a compelling idea that by the 1930s Power had found a modern abstract language capable of revisiting the traumatic subject of his hospital sketches. The implications of the war-time surgery on his art was delayed and remains highly ambiguous, however it invites, indeed encourages, such speculation.
The paper is the first to examine the cultural impact of the medical career of the artist J.W. Power. His medical training and experience as a war-time surgeon is shown to have been significant to his later painting, for he knew the regenerative powers of modern surgery, of how such knowledge had the power to repair and to heal.
Thanks to Julia Horne who inspired this short essay, and my sister Jane Kinsman and Andrew Moore, Archivist, National Gallery of Ireland who provided invaluable assistance and research.
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