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The Art of Surgery

Paintings by Joseph R. Wilder, M.D.

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Click on the small painting with each description to see a larger version.

Five Surgeons
"Sports records are made to be broken, not treasured," says surgeon Thomas Starzl. "Similarly, in an active field of the life sciences, including surgery, almost everything occurring more than five years ago is dismissed as obsolete. Consequently, there is little sense of history in medical literature. In his dual roles as a surgeon and artist, Joe Wilder has turned the tables. Seen through his creative lenses, everyday scenes in the operating theater and support areas provide a cumulative profile of surgery that can only be called heroic." (This particular scene is also reproduced in color on the cover of this issue.)

"Wilder's style, which at first glance suggests hardy realism, has a certain brooding spontaneity to it," observes art critic Donald Kuspit. It "conveys the tense inner life of the outwardly calm surgeons, absorbed in their seemingly ritualistic tasks."

Surgeons as Heroes
Kuspit adds that "Wilder is the surgeon in many of the pictures— a surgeon triply privileged in that he not only performs an operation in as careful and caring a way as possible, but is aware of his own state of mind as he performs it, and can express his state visually. . . . Wilder has the subtle skills of an impressionist Chardin," the critic continues. "He is clearly the master of the inanimate thing—showing, in fact, that it is implicitly alive. . . . These subtly expressive paintings, with their deceptive straightforwardness, epitomize Wilder's most basic interests as both a surgeon and an artist."

Preoperative Examination
"The handling changes in the pre- and postoperative works, which focus on the doctor-patient relationship," explains Kuspit. "It is softer and more fluid" than in the operating-room paintings, "which for all their expressionistic force convey a sense of determined solidity. . . . I think Wilder truly understands what Hippocrates meant when he wrote, 'Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also the love of humanity,'" Kuspit adds. This statement "is, in effect, the motto that explains the motivation of his surgeon paintings."

Scrubbing Hands
The surgeon "must be ever mindful that carelessness can create a critical infection, undoing a skillful operation," points out Wilder. Even "before the team scrubs and gowns, the chief surgeon thoroughly reviews the patient's chart while checking the major pathology and dozens of recorded tests on the chart to be doubly sure that all is in readiness for this major assault on the body. The experienced healersurgeon trusts no one," emphasizes Wilder. "Complications are best handled when anticipated, rather than encountered."

Gowned and Gloved
"The relationship of the surgeon to the patient is intimate, one on one," says Wilder's fellow surgeon C. Everett Koop. "The surgeon knows that he is responsible to the patient and also to the family, his colleagues, the hospital where he works, the profession he represents, the community of the patient, society in general." And, Koop adds, there is a "spiritual responsibility as well. The patient's soul, this patient's spirit, inhabits a body which now I am attempting to invade, to improve, and to avoid violating. The intimacy the surgeon enjoys with a patient," he admits, "has its drawbacks. When I was a young surgeon there was a time before every operation when I would have to come to grips with that relationship and try to diffuse my emotional attachment to the patient."

Art critic Kuspit picks up on the same dichotomy when he observes that in this series of paintings, "the lower part of the surgeons' faces are hidden behind an impressive mask, making them seem remote and inhuman— scientific and detached. But their haunted eyes betray their intense feelings and profound sympathy . . . [their] peculiarly vulnerable awareness of the human condition."

Contemplation Before Surgery
"My favorite painting of Joe's is Contemplation Before Surgery," says Koop. "I know the surgeon has just scrubbed his hands and arms to the elbow and while doing so was subconsciously or consciously going over the details of the operation. His body and mind are now as prepared as they will ever be to engage the surgical challenge ahead. He is also . . . communicating at all times with the other team players, for their contributions are significant if the surgery is to be successful."

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