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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Elephant Art

Elephant Herd and Egrets, 1998, Johan Hoekstra.
The painting of the tree is
sold, by the way.
In my book Art THINK (available at the far right), I discussed the art of painting elephants. I don't mean paintings of elephants, but paintings by elephants. Yes, you read that right. At the time it was kind of new, faddish thing centered in Thailand. Since then it's spread across much of Southeast Asia and wherever elephants are common. Originally, virtually all pachydermal art was of the abstract expressionist school. However, today, some of the more talented trunks like that of Paya, from the earlier era, are starting to paint plant life and even, self-por-traits (or those of his friends). This leads me to paintings of elephants by his friends--his human count-erparts.
Elephant Legs and Trunks, Paul Dane Marter
Elephant Hug, Caitland Solan
Although wildlife art, especially the more exotic types, have been popular with artists now for something like fifty to a hundred years, it's hard to understand why elephants seem to hold such a fascination for painters. As the old parable goes, they're something like a tree, something like a wall, something like a rope, a spear, a fan, and a thick snake. Given all these impressions by a group of blind men, it's hard to imagine an such an animal, obviously created and assembled by a committee. And unlike the strikingly beautiful tigers and zebras I've previously looked at from the work of painters, there is little or nothing about an elephant that one might call "beautiful." They're big, clumsy, oafish, gray, and dirty, coming up just short of downright ugly.

Elephant Hunt, South Africa, San People. Noticed how the
artist has incorporated the rock deformities into the picture
composition while also depicting the hunted as well as the hunted.
Artists' fascination and familiarity with elephants dates back to prehistoric times as seen in the cave painting of an African elephant hunt (above). Though this work has never been dated, it's safe to say its age ranges from ten to twenty-thousand years. Somewhat less ancient are the carved elephants from the Wadi Mathendous archaeological site (below), which are probably five to ten thousand years of age. Also included are giraffes, aurochs (wild cattle), and crocodiles.

Prehistoric rock engraving of an elephant, Wadi Mathendous archaeological site in Libya.
In more recent centuries, artists have depicted the Carthaginian General, Hannibal, with his army as he made the daring move of crossing the Pyrenees and Alps with his army and their elephants into Italy during the Second Punic War (218-204 BC). As depicted in the etching (below) they must have been a fearsome sight to behold. African Elephants normally stand some fourteen feet in height and weigh in at between five and seven tons.

Hannibal's war elephants.

In more recent years, the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali has created his own "ship of the desert" as seen in his Caravan (below-upper image). The Russian painter, Vladimir Kush celebrates the musical qualities of the elephant's trumpeting challenge to predators with his African-Sonata, Third Dime (below, bottom image). If Surrealism has its roots in the artists' subconscious and dreams, it make one ponder what Dali and Kush may have had for dinner the night before.

As if the elephant isn't surreal enough...
And finally, in India, they don't just paint pictures of elephants, they paint the elephants themselves as depicted in the images below. In that such beasts are used not just for heavy lifting, moving, digging, and transportation, it seems only natural that they should be appropriately decorated for their duties.

A chart, in case you ever have the need to decorate an elephant.
The color drawing dates from around 1800.

Speaking of decorated elephants...

Are We There Yet?
Maria Barry

Frosty the snow...


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