Robert C. Klapper, MD, explores the connection between orthopaedics and art
According to Robert C. Klapper, MD, orthopaedists have something in common with Michelangelo, the 15th century Italian Renaissance artist who created some of the world’s most breathtaking sculptures.
“The reason that a hip or shoulder replacement doesn’t dislocate in the hands of an orthopaedic surgeon is that we understand the third dimension—the z-axis—just as Michelangelo did,” he says. “Given a hammer and chisel, a surgeon could sculpt a hip, knee, or shoulder out of stone.”
Dr. Klapper, whose twin passions are orthopaedic surgery and the study of Michelangelo’s works, has developed a lecture showing how the two topics are linked. He has presented “Michelangelo: How he manipulated anatomy,” at the Cedars-Sinai Institute for Joint Replacement and the University of California at Los Angeles, and is scheduled to present it in November at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery.
Becoming a doctor—and an artist
Dr. Klapper learned to manipulate tools as a young man by working alongside his carpenter father. As a pre-med major at Columbia College, Dr. Klapper took an art history course that opened his eyes to the Renaissance—and to Michelangelo’s works in particular. He became so fascinated by art that he decided to major in it—a highly unusual choice, considering that he planned to become an orthopaedic surgeon. Even then, he understood the relationship between medicine and art.
“I did my senior thesis on the first anatomy textbook, which was written in 1534,” he remembers. “I analyzed it from two perspectives: as an art historian and a student of medicine.”
Dr. Klapper says he owes much of his success as a physician to his art education.
“As a resident, I dreamed up ideas and ultimately patented tools that are used by most orthopaedic surgeons in revision hip and knee surgery,” he says. “As a trained art historian, I learned to analyze things and look at things differently.”
After selling his patents, Dr. Klapper fulfilled his dream of visiting Italy to see Michelangelo’s masterpieces, the artist’s home and studio, and the quarry in Carrara where Michelangelo obtained marble for his sculptures.
During the trip, Dr. Klapper and his wife took a private tour of the National Museum of Bargello to view Michelangelo’s Brutus, Madonna of the Steps, and Bacchus. Dr. Klapper calls the experience “electric.” Inspired by the beauty of these masterful works—and at the urging of his wife, Ellen, who thought his surgical skills would translate well into sculpting—Dr. Klapper enrolled in a beginning stone carving class after returning to the United States. He quickly proved to be no ordinary student.
“Instead of trying to make something simple in sandstone, which is easy to manipulate, I decided to try to copy Michelangelo’s Brutus using Carrara marble,” he says, laughing. “So, the student to my left was making an egg, another was making a pyramid, and I was carving Brutus’s sternocleidomastoid muscle.”
Dr. Klapper has returned to Italy regularly for the past 12 years, where he rents studio space to sculpt with Carrara marble. He also has the marble sent to his art gallery in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he works with everything from small pieces to blocks that weigh 4,000 lb.
As he sculpts, Dr. Klapper studies photos of Michelangelo’s unfinished pieces.
“If I’m trying to sculpt a forehead,” he says, “I might think that I should take the chisel and hammer horizontally, because a forehead is flat. But then I look at the photo and see that Michelangelo went vertical with his chisel, leaving tooth marks. It’s as if he’s tapping me on the shoulder and guiding me as I work.”
Dr. Klapper contributed to the Academy’s eMotion Pictures art exhibitions in 2001 and 2008, winning the President’s Award for his sculpture based on Michelangelo’s Pietà at the 2001 exhibition. His 2008 entry, “The Sixth Sense of Surgery,” was also inspired by Michelangelo’s sculptures and conveys an experienced surgeon’s sixth sense about the pathology that lies under the skin.
Sharing the love of medicine and art
Dr. Klapper’s presentation focuses on Michelangelo’s uncanny ability to replicate and manipulate human anatomy to create profoundly moving works of art.
He notes that Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel depicts more than 340 figures, all of which are in different positions.
“If you look at the sculptures Michelangelo created prior to painting the Sistine Chapel,” remarks Dr. Klapper, “such as the David and the Pietà, the anatomy is perfect.
“When you then look at the sculptures he did after painting the Sistine Chapel,” he continues, “you see how he invented abstract art and impressionism by leaving the sculptures unfinished and absolutely distorting the anatomy of the figures. From an orthopaedic perspective, it’s incredible to see how he twists the anatomy for the emotional effect. My presentation traces the journey Michelangelo took to give his works a supernatural quality.”
According to Dr. Klapper, Michelangelo’s genius was rooted in a sound understanding of anatomy, some of which he obtained through the study and dissection of human corpses.
“His ability to distort the anatomy with such effect comes from his incredible understanding of it,” he says. “That’s why you don’t even see that it’s impossible to get into these positions, because if the body could, this is what it would look like.
“You’re not supposed to be able to see how Michelangelo made the curls in the David’s hair,” he adds. “What I love to do during my presentation is show orthopaedic surgeons and lay people how he made the sculpture with his tools.”
Even if orthopaedists don’t try sculpting, says Dr. Klapper, they should view Michelangelo’s works in person.
“Go see what this man did 500 years ago with a hammer and a chisel, tools similar to what we use in the operating room every day,” he says. “Turning the corner and seeing the David and the Pietà will be one of the greatest treats you’ll ever have. When you see Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, you’ll see the rest of the figure buried underneath the rock, just as you can sense a patient’s pathology under the skin.
“A happy surgeon has passions in other things, not just medicine,” says Dr. Klapper. “We should all be Renaissance men and women.”
Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org