Review: Julia Midgley – War, Art & Surgery at The Brindley

War, Art and Surgery – Julia Midgley
War, Art and Surgery – Julia Midgley

Julia Midgley – War, Art & Surgery
at The Brindley, Runcorn. Saturday 3 October – Sunday 29 November 2015

Words and photographs by Patrick Kirk-Smith

War, Art & Surgery, the title of this exhibition explains a process to us as viewers, something which I much appreciated going round The Brindley’s latest exhibition. Midgley began this project with an idea to recreate the WWI reportage style of Henry Tonks, but as the project developed it became clearer and clearer that the people to celebrate were the surgeons themselves. This is an insightful exhibition from a talented artist, exposing the process of training some of the bravest doctors in the country.

Reportage is a breed of painting that rivalled photography in its desire to record events and situations, and Midgley has developed a specific and identifiable skill for reportage that is almost as discrete as the cell phone camera is today. Her work is non-intrusive on the scenario, but allows her to add emotions and colour with an emphasis that photography doesn’t allow for. What is brilliant about Midgley though, is not her skill, or her ability to capture the moment, but her ability to compliment the subject where it is due.

The trainee surgeons, whether they are practising on dummies, or on real people; the physio patients with war wounds; the makeup artists delicately preparing false injuries for medical drills. These are the people this work celebrates, and praises. Not for bravery, but for dedication to a role that they haven’t even entered yet. The work looks at the efforts of surgeons around various training bases in England.

The project which lasted three years was the result of a partnership between The Royal College of Surgeons of England – who at the time were seeking a contemporary juxtaposition to their planned display of all the Tonks pastel portraits in 2014 – and Midgley. Liverpool John Moores University were one of the first sponsors. The project’s major funder was Arts Council England.

While Tonks, who was both a surgeon and a war artist, showed the devastation of war incredibly graphically – often painting his own patients – Midgley’s drawings are fast, and capture the energy of the scenes of injuries perfectly, whether it is in the dignity of the doctors, or the looks on their faces as they imagine telling a patient she will lose her legs (if you are not familiar with Henry Tonks, there is a book available in the exhibition to help introduce the parallels between the two bodies of work). What you have to remember looking at the work on display here is that it is, for the most part, a report of training. Midgley is not aiming to shock, she is aiming to display the determination of future heroes to fulfil their roles.

The roles, are much more humane than we might imagine, and are portrayed with a very modern attitude which is much more hopeful than the same drawings might have been during WWI. It is not necessarily a celebration of modern medicine, but of the training we now understand is crucial – a response to mistakes of the past, training personnel to cope with humans, not just stabilise a patient.

If it’s not history you’re after though, the works are really intricate examples of reportage, taking that emotive but hasty style of the court room into high energy situations. They each display individuals at their bravest time, and don’t overdo anything. They are honest and highly involved dedications to the people they report on, inviting the viewer to understand the situations a little better.