When art and science meet in Bloom


  • Arts
  • Thursday, 09 Feb 2017

No. 6: Rock Rose (acrylic on canvas, 2015). — Photos: Shalini Ganendra Fine Art

For many people, the worlds of art and science are vastly different universes. Science and art, however, overlap in many ways. Both are concerned about seeking truth, and require a high degree of mastery.

Perhaps Einstein said it best: “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

And meeting the eminent British surgeon Roy Calne, you definitely see the truth of Einstein’s words. Not only is Calne one of the great names in the field of organ transplant, he’s also a masterful artist, whose works have been displayed in many exhibitions around the world.

“I was a kid who liked drawing. And when I became a teacher of medicine and surgery, I liked drawing anatomy, and how you do the operation. Although you get exactitude with a photograph, if you want to make a certain point, you can do more with a drawing. I found this a good way of teaching students and discussing with colleagues,” says Calne, 86, speaking during a recent interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

The doctor’s works are on show in the Bloom an exhibition, which is currently showing in PJ. This is his sixth solo exhibition with the gallery, with the first held in 1998.

No 1: Blue Vase (2015), by Roy Calne, acrylic on canvas. Photo: Shalini Ganendra Fine Art
No 1: Blue Vase (2015), by Roy Calne, acrylic on canvas. Photo: Shalini Ganendra Fine Art

Calne was a former Professor of Surgery at Cambridge University from 1965 to 1968, where he initiated the kidney transfer programme. Among his most notable achievements are performing the world’s first liver, heart, and lung transplant in 1987, Europe’s first liver transplantation operation in 1968, and the first intestinal transplant in Britain in 1992. He received the Lister Medal for his contributions to surgical science in 1984, and was knighted in 1986.

He first picked up art after performing a successful liver transplant on the famous Scottish painter, John Bellany, in 1988: the grateful artist gave Calne art lessons after that.

The doctor also has personal connections to Malaysia: Calne was appointed as a visiting professor to the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) in 2008. It was not his first time: he first came to South-East Asia as a medical officer with the Royal Army Medical Corps when he was in his mid-20s. He was posted to Singapore and Hong Kong, and his regiment had a stint in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan.

“Life was much simpler then. But the climate is the same. And there was no air-conditioning then. The only air-conditioning was in the operating rooms of the hospitals, and in the mortuary,” adds Calne with a laugh.

Meeting him in person during a recent visit to Malaysia, Calne appears serious, almost stern at first: engaging him in conversation, however, reveals a healthy sense of humour and a wit as sharp as a scalpel. For his age, he certainly seems light on his feet, moving through the gallery to enthusiastically show his work.

Bloom showcases some of his recent works, including floral scenes from his exquisitely landscaped garden at his home in Cambridge, England, where he and his family have lived for 50 years. Works such as No 1: Blue Vase (2015) and No 4: Spring Flowers (2015) reveal the artist’s keen eye for colour and detail.

While Calne is fond of painting a vast variety of subject matter, including “ships and cheese”, his favourite thing to paint, however, is people.

“If somebody has a very interesting face, or a very interesting story, I like to get the opportunity to draw and paint them,” he says, showing a portrait he had done (not in the collection) of his colleague, the Nobel prize-winning scientist Dr Sydney Brenner.

No. 5: Pink Roses (acrylic on canvas, 2015).
No. 5: Pink Roses (acrylic on canvas, 2015).

One of the highlights of Bloom is a series of 10 prints, created by Calne using digital media. These feature images of a nude model: first depicted in a representational, figurative style, the image slowly becomes more expressionist as the series progresses.

“As an artist, you always like to do things which no one else has done before. I thought that people would find it quite interesting, from a conceptual point of view, trying to turn a representational drawing into an abstract, conceptual piece,” says Calne.

Also featured in Bloom are several bronze sculptures. He was introduced to this art form after operating on sculptor Lawrence Broderick, who offered to create a bust of him for a hospital. Broderick suggested that Calne be depicted with his hand on a chair. The doctor, however, had other ideas.

“I said, why don’t we do a liver instead of a chair? And he said, that’s a good idea, but I don’t know what a liver looks like. And I said, I do, I work on them every day! And he gave me some clay, and went for lunch, and when he came back, I had the liver ready,” says Calne. That liver gave life to an enthusiasm for sculpture.

Bloom contains many of Calne’s works, most of which depict humans in motion.

Having entirely static sculptures, says Calne, is boring.

Open Heart shows a figure kneeling, a hole in his body, offering up his internal organs to the sky. Calne explains that this work is a tribute to the organ donor. Works like Stretch 1, Stretch 2 and Lift show the human body engaged in dance, perhaps the most elegant form of physical expression.

One of his favourite pieces, however, is Couple Dancing, which shows a pair of salsa dancers.

“I get a funny kind of aberration in my brain. When I’m tired, I look at those two, and they start to move, actually dancing in my eyes. And then I blink my eyes, and see they’re not. But they are obviously dancing in joy, and it gives me pleasure,” says Calne.

Couple Dancing (bronze).
Couple Dancing (bronze).

Calne is quite active nowadays. According to him, he’s still got a lot of artwork to display. He’s hard at work in his laboratory in Singapore, among other projects, where he’s engaged in research for gene therapy for diabetes. For a man so accomplished in both the fields of arts and science, are there any other kinds of skills he wishes he could master?

“I think to play a music instrument well,” says Calne with a twinkle in his eye.

Bloom is showing at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art in PJ till March 30. The gallery is open from 11am to 7pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, and on public holidays by appointment. For more info, visit www.shaliniganendra.com or call 03-7932 4740.

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