Sam Haile

Surgical Ward

1939

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On display at Tate Britain

Artist
Sam Haile 1909–1948
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 610 x 762 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Mrs Marriane Haile 1967
Reference
T00942

Display caption

In true surrealist tradition, Haile’s work challenges convention and good taste. There seems to be a clear air of violence and threat in this picture. We seem to be looking at both a figure in a landscape and at the internal organs of a human body. The artist was fascinated with surgery and dismemberment. This work may show a surgeon (right) trampling on parts of a dissected body, watched by a series of disembodied eyes (left). The idea of stripping away all learnt convention to facilitate a new vision was an important part of surrealism.

Gallery label, September 2016

Catalogue entry

Sam Haile 1909–1948

T00942 Surgical Ward 1939

Inscribed ‘24. ii. 39’ b.r.
Canvas, 24 x 30 (61 x 76).
Presented by Mrs Marianne Haile 1967.
Exh: Manchester City Art Gallery, November–December 1967 (9) and tour 1967–8.

Known chiefly as one of the outstanding potters of his generation, Sam Haile was also active as a painter of landscapes and surrealist subjects. He began to paint in a surrealist style in 1936 and joined the Surrealist Group in 1937, but very few of his surrealist works were ever shown to the public during his lifetime. His friend A. C. Sewter records (in the catalogue of the above exhibition) that many of the earlier ones were lost or destroyed when Sam Haile went to the United States in 1939, a number were destroyed in the same car accident in which he himself was killed in 1948, and almost half of the survivors were burnt in a fire at his widow’s pottery at Dartington in 1957. Only twelve small canvases and some fifty-odd watercolours, gouaches and drawings remain of the whole surrealist output.

‘Surgical Ward’ is one of several works inspired by hospitals or operating theatres, the oils also including ‘Clinical Examination’ (dated 11. i. 39) and ‘Brain Operation’ (dated 16. i. 39.); all three seem to have been executed shortly before his departure for the United States, where he lived from 1939–44. A pen-and-ink. drawing ‘Polystomatedae’, dated 1939, is closely connected with ‘Surgical Ward’ and may have been a preliminary study for it.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1967–1968, London 1968.

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