The New Yorker writer, and recent author of Everything That Rises : A Book of Convergences." /> The New Yorker writer, and recent author of Everything That Rises : A Book of Convergences." />

Lawrence Weschler | Essays

Languorous Bodyscapes

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 number."

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [15]

That was...odd. And an impressive set of connections.

I don't really have anything to add(obviously), other than wonder whether there's a formal concept in the visual arts equivalent to literature's intertextuality. Seems applicable.
At the very least it would provide a convenient comeback to your daughter.

Nice utilization of Thesaurusese to give the similitude of intellectual puissance.

I agree that big words are unpleasant and even frightening, but I found a lot of parallels in the kinds of seeing that Mr. Weschler is talking about with the world of design on many levels.

Formmaking ex nihilo is almost impossible for a designer. Every formal decision seems destined to preceed from references in the world of art, design, nature, and even (as Su implies above) literature. Seeing the connections and possibilites in unrelated things is fundamental to creating new ones.
Michael Bierut

"I agree that big words are unpleasant and even frightening" a world without big words is more frightening...

I'm going to think up something to say simply because if I were going to stalk someone in this world, I think it would be Lawrence Weschler. I was thrilled and impressed to see his name as a Guest Observer.

I can't say I noticed any "big words," and I'm usually sensitive to anything I have to get a dictionary out for (said dictionary being far from dusty, let me tell you). However, more pictures? More pictures!

But you lost me at the cloud. The relationship between the cloud and the body seems tenuous, at best—to my eye, anyway.

However, this story about the photographic coordination for the sake of the mysterious cloud is very interesting indeed. Do things like this happen ... ever? Are there other examples of art directors calling up every photographer they know to photograph an immediate, fleeting visual moment?

It reminds me of a time in Saskatoon, during a summer of northern forest fires, one evening the sun was setting and it turned into a huge (*huge*!), fuzzy, peach-coloured disc in an even grey sky as it went down. The riverbank was packed with photographers, and it was great to see more drive up and rush out of their cars with their equipment. I've always wanted to see the varied results of that day. And would any of them resemble a langourous bodyscape? I have no doubt.
marian bantjes

Interesting, yes very, very interesting.
To each his own.
What I find most educational about this posting, is not the posting, although interesting, but peoples interpretations and comments to this posting. Even though there is only 3.
For example, "Formmaking ex nihilo is almost impossible for a designer. Every formal decision seems destined to preceed from references in the world of art, design, nature, and even (as Su implies above) literature. Seeing the connections and possibilites in unrelated things is fundamental to creating new ones." I think is incredible insightful and I would have never been able to put it that way.
Nathan Philpot

Well put, JB. We've suffered Weschler's mannered ramblings on McSweeney's for the last few months and now they're spreading. I'm no devotee of Adolf Loos, but sometimes "ornament is crime" is a good maxim for prose as well as design.

Maybe it's all the Nabokov, but am I missing something? I mean, I could list the readability index results suggesting any reasonably intelligent high school senior should have no problem reading this, but I was confused even before that.

Moving along.

Is there an image of the poster anyplace easy to get at? I'm curious about it. I dug around a little, but don't have particularly convenient search terms to work with.

Now and again I used to come to Design Observer and happen upon an interesting conversation about design or a related subject. Returning after a long while and after reading this post, I can only assume the editors have finally decided that the best use for this site is to try to impress each other with more and more obscure references. The people who post comments to this sort of rubbish I can only assume are in turn trying to impress the editors. And so the circle of being a 'design critic' is completed. New blood is ushered into an increasingly irrelevant arena and the oldies get to retire, safe in the knowledge no one ever did work out what the hell they were talking about. Please can we start talking some sense and get back to a site that was some use.

'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.

Absolutely hilarious!!!
David Shields

...the editors have finally decided that the best use for this site is to try to impress each other with more and more obscure references.

jeez. read a book. it wasn't that obscure.

this is, by far, the meatiest and sluttiest piece i've read here. many thanks. i'd like a cigarette now.


A Few Notes on Convergences from Lloyd Ziff:
Inspired by Bill Drenttel sending "Langorous Bodyscapes" this morning.
1. Right now I am writing from a secluded bay about 50 miles from Santiago, Panama, on the Pacific Ocean.
2. I am here with Mick Haggerty & his wife Liza Lou, & my partner of 26 years, Stephen Kelemen. I met Stephen through my friendship with Jerry Joyner & Don Bell. In the late 70's, Jerry & Don designed the book on Juan Filipe Sanchez.
3. I hung a poster of the Man Ray lips over my bed in the 60's.
4. I heard about the cloud as it floated over L.A. all day, & I asked a few photographer friends to photograph it. We ran the pictures in New West & titled the story "Cloud Encounters," to coincide with the opening of Speilberg's "Close Encounters."
5. After the story ran, several other photographers called to say that they too had photographed the cloud. Paul Ruscha, David Hockney, Mick Haggerty, Raul Vega, Tim Street Porter, & Roger Webster are who I remember now. I collected the photos & designed the poster.
6. That's Mick's photograph of the cloud with his '59 Cadillac in the forground.
7. And one more: Right now Mick is on the veranda reading "The Old Man and The Sea". The Old Man's name is Santiago.

Lloyd Ziff
William Drenttel

I attached a letter to Lloyd Ziff in response to his reply to William Drenttel about the famous cloud conundrum. I won't post it here because of its length. Perhaps Bill will forward it to you? Your site and essay are quite good, but here's the names of the Unknown Photographers, from top to bottom: 1. Raul Vega 2. Mick Haggerty 3. David Greenberg's of Liz Freeman, the pretty girl in the photo. The best Dada comment from Man Ray's autobiography (if I remember correctly from having read it 44 years ago) was "Everyone who pushed the button was disappointed that the bell did not ring."
Paul Ruscha

Lloyd, have you answered William Drenttel yet? It would be interesting to
hear your side of it.

You might recall that my experience with that amazing cloud began when I was working at
United Artist's Records photo studio, and I was leaving for the day, but when I
opened my car door to get in, I noticed this awe-inspiring, lenticular cloud
floating over the houses across the street. I felt it had to be shot by a
great photographer, so I ran back to the studio and yelled to Grant Mudford,
the Australian landscape/fine art photographer who was using our darkroom
that afternoon. He yelled back that I should shoot it myself, as he was making a
complicated print and couldn't come outside.

Frustrated, I quickly loaded a camera and ran back out and shot off one
photo before I got into my car and drove home. Every time I pulled up to a
red light or a stop sign, I took another picture, because the incredible
cloud just hovered overhead without disintegrating. When I got home, the
eerie specter was still in the sky, but the light was falling off as it was
at dusk.

I had the film developed and was glad that I hadn't missed the opportunity
to capture the moment. Months later, I went to see Don Owens at The Picture
Magazine, and he looked through my portfolio and chose one photograph from
the dozen or so images of the cloud that I'd shot and said he wanted to publish it. I
happily agreed, and was delighted when it came out, as it looked quite
impressive when printed in that large format. A while after that, I was
at the Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood, and David Hockney came up to me and
congratulated me on my photo. I told him about shooting it and said that
when I was on my way home that day that I saw other people outside shooting
pictures of it also. He laughed and said that he, too, had shot it. I said
that I'd love to see his photograph one day.

Later, when I retold you of that incident, you said that if Hockney had shot
it as well, it would be great to find other photographers who might have taken
pictures of it and publish them in New West Magazine, which you were
art directing at that time. More photographers kept coming forward with
their images of the cloud and I was amazed when you located others, too. Then
you published them in the issue which coincided with the premiere of
Spielberg's "Close Encounters" movie. After the popularity of all those magazine
images together, you created that beautiful poster with all the different
photographs of that one moment in time. I think you won some awards for it,
and I believe that Don's Picture Magazine reaped some also. I remember that
my cloud photograph was reprinted in (if I remember correctly) the Art
Direction Annual on the page across from a photograph of Edward Gorey
sitting in a box with a cat. That made me smile.

Have you received my Full Moon book yet? It's doing quite well, and I hope you liked how your chapter looks with your wonderful photographs, and Stephen's looks with his amazing drawings. I thank you both for being in my exhibition and, of course, for enhancing the book.

Love to you and yours,


PS: Now that I have read your own comments from Santiago, I will post these after my previous posting because it seems that length is in the eye of the beholder and my own hasty, lazy, scan-reading style confirms that.
Paul Ruscha

This is the poster of the 1976 "New West" cloud photographed November 16, 1976, supplied to Design Observer by Lloyd Ziff, its designer. Credits for photographers include: Top row, l to r: Ros Cross, Paul Ruscha, Raul Vega, Robert Berg; Middle row: David Jacobson, David Greenberg (Elizabeth Bishop pictured), Roger Webster, Dennis Worden; Bottom row: Mick Haggerty, David Hockney, Tom Keller, Paul Ruscha.
Geoff Halber

Here's some more info about those unusual clouds.

Mmmmm, lenticular
josh b

Jobs | June 14