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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.

Sharp Dissection
This image captures what art critic Kuspit calls "Wilder's obsession with the demanding intimacy (far beyond ordinary colleagueship) of the operating room."

And says Koop of this series of works, "When I look at Joe's paintings, I remember and feel once again" the aura of the OR. "The way his figures stand, their body language, their very attitude propel from the page into my mind. . . . At times I used to think, 'This is as close as I will ever get to the precision of ballet dancing.'"

Concentration in Surgery
"Intense concentration is the hallmark of successful surgery," explains Koop. And Wilder himself believes "that the operating room should be seen as a cathedral, in which all occupants must respect the sanctity of the place. All attention must be focused on the patient and the operative procedure. . . . A quiet ambience must be pervasive, with the same respect that we show in our place of worship."

And art critic Kuspit, referring to a 19th-century painter of several noted works with medical themes, says of Wilder, "This is not Thomas Eakins looking in on an operation and trying to identify with the surgeon, but the surgeon himself showing us—in great detail— what it looks and feels like to practice surgery."

Deep in Surgery
"The surgeon, like the priest, struggles with first and last things," points out Kuspit. The surgeon "is in the special position of the caretaker and healer in a world which is not very caring and more pathological than healing. Bodily illness may not be the wages of sin in Wilder's pictures, as it was in medieval times, but it has a profound psychic effect on both doctors and patients. Wilder's surgeons may not be saints or priests, but he clearly views surgeons as heroes."

Yet the practical details of Wilder's paintings are also significant. "There is a tendency for most of us to focus on the patient and surgery team when we think of the operating room," the artist himself observes. "However, there are numerous objects resting near the patient that are lifesaving. . . . The simple bottle, tube, and needle are essential for safe and successful surgery."

Threading the Needle
"Wilder uses the impressionistic-expressionistic interplay of light and darkness to emotional effect," says Kuspit, "thus restoring Rembrandt's visionary idea of significance.

"Wilder's surgeons are sturdy oaks," he adds, "but they are also bamboo reeds that bend with the wind and thus do not break. Surgery is necessarily realistic and scientific, but it is also expressionistic and artistic . . . which is no doubt why Eakins regarded it as a model for realistic art and why Wilder regards painting and surgery as parallel activities, for both integrate hand and mind."

Removing Gloves
"Why is a work of art so enduring compared to the fleeting fame of the event or subject it captures?" asks surgeon Starzl. "One reason may be that students, teachers, and critics of art are preoccupied with the perpetuation, refinement, and continuous reevaluation of what already has been done or learned. An aura of history hangs heavy over a superb painting of a person, an accomplishment, or even some simple thing."

Wilder himself observes about one of the seemingly "simple" elements in this particular painting that "hands are the most difficult part of the human anatomy to paint. Indeed, many artists fake them." Yet a surgeon's hands, he adds, represent "coordination, beauty, and delicacy. For these anatomical structures make the difference between poor, good, and great surgeons. Good hands give you good surgery."

Recovery Room
"It is in the numerous images in which Wilder shows the surgeon . . . before or after the operation that the depths of the surgeon's feelings become apparent," writes Kuspit. "It is then that his professional and human pride become one—that the tough-mindedness that he shows before operating gives way to tenderness and warmth. Wilder's surgeons have hearts as well as minds."

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