Mysterious Cloud Over Los Angeles, Photographer Unknown, November 1976.
So I was visiting my friends Pepe and Dionora in Santiago, Chile, a while back they're great art lovers and their apartment nests a collection of marvelous books and Pepe was escorting me through this one particularly sumptuous volume given over to the life and works of the Venezuelan folk master Juan Félix Sánchez (weaver, potter, sculptor, builder-by-hand of rock-hewn highland churches); and presently, turning the page, we happened into a magisterial spread by the photographer Sigfrido Geyer, evoking the undulating hill approach to Sánchez's hardscrabble lair and, quite unself-consciously, I found myself gasping: "Velázquez's Venus
Pepe looked over at me quizzically, noncomprehending. "The Rokeby Venus
," I clarified, self-evidently. I got up and grabbed a Velázquez catalog from a nearby shelf and turned to the image in question and Pepe started laughing, whether at or with me I wasn't quite sure.
"The long, languid spread of her body makes the first and most lasting impression." It was the inimitable Edward Snow, I suppose, in a superb little essay he squirreled away a long time ago in an out-of-the-way, short-lived journal (University Publishing,
Winter 1978), who first set me to thinking along these lines: of the Rokeby Venus,
that is, in addition to everything else, as a sort of extended landscape. "She unfolds and extends before the eyes like the manifestation of a vast inner horizon. (The reflection in the mirror rests beyond her like a setting sun.)"
In Geyer's instance, it was the cloud bank over the haunch of hill, rather than any putative sunset, that more precisely echoed the tuft of white fabric just beyond Velázquez's goddess. But still . . . .The Rokeby Venus, Diego Velazquez, 1647-51.
Not that I'm the only one subject to these sorts of landscape-bodyscape slippages. Far from it. Edward Weston, for example, seemed to be falling into them all the time. One of Courbet's most astonishing paintings, The Origin of the World,
his evocation of a languorously reclining nude, swathed in bedsheets with legs spread wide, the image cropped in tight so as to divulge only the expanse from breasts to midthigh, conspicuously echoes several of his lush river- (or rather gorge-) scapes, such as The Source of the Loue
(a grotto) and Le puits noir
(The Black Well); and indeed, the central grouping in perhaps his most famous allegory, The Painter's Studio,
portrays a naked model, presumably on a break, bedsheets clasped to her chest as she stands gazing, in rapt absorption, over the artist's shoulder at his latest creation, another lush riverscape for which one can't help wondering whether she herself wasn't the model. (Michael Fried has a nice discussion of all this in his book Courbet's Realism.)
The other day, meanwhile, the photographers Len Jenshel and Diane Cook were recalling for me a time when they had occasion to be showing the poet W. S. Merwin a sheaf of their then-recent vantages of Yellowstone shrouded in snow, riffling from one photo to the next, when the poet suddenly stayed their hand before a particularly suggestive image, virtually whistling, "Boy, would I like her
Later that night in Santiago, jetlagged, insomniac, I was padding about Pepe and Dionora's living room and pulled the Sánchez volume off the shelf once again. I turned to the "Rokeby spread," as I'd taken to thinking of it, only this time the associations were altogether different. Something about the barely suggested diagonal swath that cut clean across the valley floor what was it? a cowpath, perhaps? and now I was instead experiencing the image not so much as a lollygagging, backturned nude but, rather (what with the two undulating hills above the path and the supple cleft separating the two of them
), as a vast, front-facing set of lips.
Luscious lips spread clean across the sky . . . For, of course, now my associations were all to Man Ray's celebrated 1933 canvas, A l'Heure de l'Observatoire: les Amoureux.
Pepe's well-stocked shelves soon yielded up a Man Ray catalog as well, and the match was indeed uncanny. Even more uncanny, though for now I'd pulled down the Velázquez volume one more time was how thoroughly the Man Ray aligned with the Rokeby. Cupid's bow, indeed.
The Man Ray catalog explained how the American expatriate artist, haunted by the recent rupture of his affair with the ravishing Lee Miller, had taken to launching out on long walks across the Montparnasse and the Luxembourg Gardens, with their distant view of Louis XIV's twin-domed observatory ("its two domes like breasts dimly indicated on the horizon" is how Man Ray subsequently parsed matters in his autobiography, Self-Portrait
). That observatory for many years had constituted France's Greenwich the prime meridian well into the twentieth century for French cartographers, who insisted on having Longitude Zero slice through Paris rather than Greenwich. Hence the seemingly endless presentness of l'Heure de l'Observatoire,
the time of mourning, when the departed lover's lips hover streaked across the sky.A l'Heure de l'Observatoire: les Amoureux, Man Ray, 1933.
The lips sprawl across the sky, lounging across the bed of the horizon line like Velázquez's Venus and indeed, for the months Man Ray was working on it and for several years thereafter, he hung the wide canvas over his own bed.
But look again at the Velázquez: for isn't it rather that the goddess herself extends like an upper lip over the lower lip of the black satin sash spread just beneath her the two joined, as it were, in an enigmatic if barely subliminal smile. A smile that in turn levitates over the white of the bed itself, below which lies another dark expanse, just as in the Man Ray composition.
Surely, at any rate, the Velázquez must have been teasing at the rim of Man Ray's own creative consciousness as, heartbroken, transported beyond heartbreak, he labored over his rendition. (Look, for instance, at the way the goddess's extended elbow, at the far right of the Rokeby, swells beyond the support of the black satin sash and now look at the funny business going on in the Man Ray, with the far right of the upper lip.)
Man Ray would subsequently observe in his autobiography how "the lips, because of their scale, no doubt suggested two closely joined bodies." And, elsewhere, he'd further gloss: "Your mouth itself becomes two bodies separated by a long, undulating horizon. Like the earth and the sky, like you and me."
The lips (in French, les levres
) are thus themselves the lovers (les amoureux)
the levitating lovers! of the painting's title. A French-American pun, worthy of that love-lorn American in Paris. But a seventeenth-twentieth-century pun as well: two bodies separated by a long, undulating horizon. Like you and me, like Velázquez and Man Ray?
Sometimes I wonder about these convergences of mine. ("Uh-oh," my daughter is given to saying once she senses me getting going, "Daddy's having another one of his loose-synapsed moments.") Maybe I'm reading a bit too much into all of this.
I'm reminded of the old story about the guy who goes to a shrink, desperate for relief: "Doc, Doc, you've got to help me, I can't take it anymore. My problem is " At which point the doctor interrupts him: "No, no, don't tell me. I'll give you a little test here and I'll be able to tell you what your problem is." He pulls out a sheaf of placards from his desk drawer and shows the patient the first which portrays a simple pair of straight, parallel vertical lines asking him, "What's this?" "Oh my God," says the guy, "it's two people, a man and a woman, and they're necking, and ycch, it's disgusting." Hmm, thinks the shrink as he scribbles a note on his clipboard. "And this?" (Another two lines, this time horizontal.) "Ach, Jesus!" exclaims the patient. "It's the same two and now they're in bed, they're having physical relations, intercourse, and, aye, it's completely revolting." Hmmm, thinks the shrink as he jots himself another note. "And this?" (Another two lines, this time crossed.) "Oh my Lord, dear God," stammers the patient, barely able to continue. "It's the same couple and this time, I can't even say it, they're . . . they're " "Sir," interrupts the shrink, "we don't even have to go any further, I can already tell you what your problem is: You, sir, have a pathologically dirty mind."
"I've got a dirty mind?" The patient explodes: "You're the one showing me the dirty pictures!"
So, as I say, sometimes I think I may be getting a little ahead of myself, but the world does keep showing me these pictures.
And, indeed, a few months after my return from Santiago, I happened upon an image in a Man Ray wall calendar, a photograph Man Ray himself had taken of that painting of his, spread over his bed, and draped over the bed . . . well, see for yourself.A l'Heure de l'Observatoire: les Amoureux (photograph), Man Ray,
And then, a few months after that, while browsing through a Marc Chagall catalog, I came upon a reproduction of his Nu au-dessus de Vitebsk
, surely another Rokeby-intoxicated work, this time the back-turned nude herself floating in the sky over the artist's nostalgically evoked home shtetl. Velázquez-influenced? No doubt. But look at where it was painted that same city, Paris and when
it was painted: that same year, 1933! And look at the synagogue, which occupies almost the same swath of horizon as the observatory in Man Ray's painting. Was it something in the water? Had either artist seen the other's? I don't know, but I can't help wondering.Nu au-dessus de Vitebsk, Marc Chagall, 1933.
Of course, with the Chagall, especially as we view the painting today, the temporal vectors are entirely reversed. The Man Ray, as we have seen, gazes back upon the expiring sigh of his relationship with Lee Miller. But, again, look at the date: 1933. Chagall's masterpiece uncannily foreshadows a near future when the remains of naked massacred women would indeed be wafting smokily over emptied, plundered villages.
As it happens, my grandfather, the Weimar modernist composer Ernst Toch, was also in Paris in 1933: the first stop on his flight, along with his wife and the young daughter who would presently become my mother, out of newly Nazified Berlin, through Paris and London and New York, and eventually on to Southern California. Just like Man Ray, who by the late '30s would find himself ensconced in an apartment just off Hollywood and Vine, in the lee of the Griffith Park Observatory, up there in the Hills just beyond the HOLLYWOOD sign.
I mention all this because my grandfather's fortunate escape in turn accounts, in part, for why I was born and grew up in Los Angeles (for the longest time I'd assumed the observatory in Man Ray's painting was in fact the Griffith Park of my field-trip youth), hopeless acolyte of the light there at no moment perhaps as fervently, though, as on that afternoon, in November 1976, when a great-dreamy-somnambulant blimp of a cloud went floating, pink and languorous, bulbous and surreal, across the sky of Golden Hour, like nothing so much as . . . well, by now of course you know.Mysterious Cloud Over Los Angeles, Photographer Unknown, November 1976.
Anybody who was in town that day and happened to look up remembers that cloud. Lloyd Ziff, the art director of New West
at the time had the wit to telephone photographers all over town that afternoon, urging them to get out and record the visitation. Several did so, and he subsequently compiled a delicious poster: the cloud as framed by palm fronds and reflected along sleek-finned automobile hoods; as seen floating benignly, here over the airport and there atop a gas station; and then there, in the middle of his resultant grid, my favorite, the cloud hovering as backdrop to a portrait of the all-time quintessentially perfect California Girl, who, of course, is smiling.Mysterious Cloud Over Los Angeles, Photographer Unknown, November 1976.Lawrence Weschler is currently director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. He is the author of Boggs: A Comedy of Values, Robert Irwin: Getty Garden, Vermeer in Bosnia: A Reader and Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. He was featured last year on The Transom Review.
Editors note: This essay is a previously unpublished Convergence Piece by Lawrence Weschler. We are pleased to present it here, as well as to recommend his newest collection of essays.