Running like Elephants

“Guys! Let’s hurry up a little. I like how we are dawdling, but the school bell waits for no ships to sail across the seas! ” I said. There had been a mild spattering of rain across the dry summer season. A few snails had popped out to enjoy the moist, and the son and his friends were looking at them as they chatted and made their way to school. Rain drops on the late summer roses and oleander flowers made the scene a rather endearing one.

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The response from the children was predictable – they ran, and I ran shouting like a charioteer pulling the reins on the excited steeds, “Slow down! No running here – oncoming traffic!”
“But you asked us to hurry up!”
“Yes – run like Elephants!” I said.

I had told the children earlier about the Elephant’s gait, and they exchanged glances and started laughing. The snail they were studying looked startled and showed a leap of speed as it made its way back to the comfort of the garden bed.

Is this walking? *giggle*
Is this running? *giggle giggle*
Is this fast walking? * giggle giggle giputly duggle*
Is this slow running? *giggle puddle chuckle duffle*

I smiled slowly. “Pretend you are Elephants teaching Snails to run.”

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I suppose that was a wrong metaphor altogether. By the time we arrived in the school, not only were we out of breath with the laughing, but we were also fashionably disconcerted. The legs seem to not remember how to walk straight or run properly, and were caught in this limbo of the Elephant’s Gait.

Later that week, I was sitting in the garden and watching the world go about its true business of living. I watched a hummingbird’s fast-paced wing movements up in the trees. A few butterflies were flitting hither and tither. A skein of geese were flying overhead in that beautiful v-shaped formation. Closer to the ground, a few snails were marking their slow way across the courtyard.

This combination of sitting in a garden, and watching life flit by had me take a hundred pictures with my phone. Pictures that may or may not be seen and appreciated again. I could capture the slow motion video of the humming bird whizzing up above or the butterflies in my midst. I could use time-lapse videos to capture the slow moving snails and a dozen pictures to capture the beautiful movement of the caterpillars.

As I sat there musing on the ease with which we capture movement these days, I could not help comparing and contrasting humanity’s struggle to capture that. I remember yawning in the Art galleries after seeing the n-th painting of a horse or the x-th statue of a horse drawn chariot.

But as I sat there that afternoon, I wondered whether I had appreciated them enough. After all, at the time of their making, studying movement was not all easy. One had to have an almost eidetic memory to understand the muscles and the way they moved.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s work is appreciated because of the lengths he went to study the anatomy of the creatures in his works. 300 years ago, movement must have been particularly hard to study.

In Oliver Sacks’ essay on Elephant Gaits in the book, Everything in its Place, he writes about the problem of studying movement.

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More than a century ago, Etienne-Jules Marey had made a pioneering investigation of elephant gaits. Of course, he did not use video analysis then, but still photography. I quote: “Marey’s lifelong fascination with movement started with the internal movements and processes of the body. He had been a pioneer here, inventing pulse meters, blood pressure graphings and heart tracings – ingenious precursors to the mechanical instruments used in Medicine even today.

Later, he moved onto the animal movements and analysis.
For animal analysis he used pressure gauges, rubber tubes, and graphic recordings to measure the movements and positions of limbs. From these recordings, he rotated in a zoetrope, reconstructing in slow motion the movements of the horse.

Muybridge, a contemporary of Marey, however, a peripatetic artist as Sacks describes him used 24 cameras along a track where the shutter would be tripped by the horses themselves as they galloped past to capture the movements of the horse as they raced.

When a similar technique was used to analyze the fast movement of elephants, it was found that they neither walked nor ran, but rather a combination known as fast walking.

I remember a long ago conversation with a friend who was training for a marathon on the more recent study of leopards running, and how he had changed his running technique to take a few tips from the world’s fastest runner.

As we watch the world around us, I wish different creatures could teach us some of their marvelous techniques. The dragonfly and the humming bird for flight; mallards and coots for water locomotion. Doesn’t Biomimicry as a field of study sound more fascinating than ever before? I positively yearn to be Dr John Dolittle at times!

Books/Articles to be read/referenced in this post:

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Horse

The husband was wearing a red t-shirt that had Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing on it, that said, Simplicity is the ultimate Sophistication.

He was particularly fond of the t-shirt, especially as he was reading the biography of the great man.

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“Be like Leonardo Da Vinci guys. Be simple and eh… persistent.”, I said.

“Oh! I don’t know about that! Did you know about Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse? “, said the husband. He was reading the biography of Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, which is to say we almost read it. The book is a lengthy one, and as he made his way through it, he shared tidbits of things that fascinated him.

Time has probably been kind to the memory of Leonardo Da Vinci. Most of us only seem to be remember his genius in art, his legendary stature as a polymath, he said. The husband chuckled as he read and told us about Walter Isaacson’s portrayal of him – a tempestuous man who often did not complete the commissions given to him. Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse is an excellent example.

He then went on to relate the tale to much mirth and chuckling from the children. Apparently, what was commissioned to him was to build an epic statue of the Duke’s son riding a horse. He then went off to live on a farm, to study horses. The farm life yielded a treatise – an unpublished book, on different kinds of horses, equine surgeries to understand horse anatomy etc. He had originally planned to create a statue of a rearing horse.

This is an image that is much popular in the art forms at Italy, I remembered. The raw power of a horse rearing up on its hind legs is both attractive and magnetic. I am not sure how riders feel when they are about to be bucked off, but it makes for good Art. The prince would have to look brave while clinging onto dear life.

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Abandoned Design. Image Courtesy: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59580

Anyway, after a few years studying horses, their physiology, their movements etc, he started developing models for his statue. Clay, lead and bronze made its way from the armies to Da Vinci for his great statue. Then, he figured that the greatest statue of the magnitude he had in mind would not be supported by the hind legs structurally, and he went on to make it a standing horse. The prince riding the horse resplendently was forgotten!

These things took time, but it did not seem to perturb him. His sponsors may have been antsy, the bronze supplies may have been running low, the armies getting fidgety with not having enough new armor, but that was their problem, seemed to be his opinion.

In time, a large clay model of a beautiful horse may its way for the Duke’s inspection. The model won Da Vinci much critical acclaim. It truly was beautiful. If the Duke was slightly upset about not seeing his son on the horse, he did not show it. The royalty raise their children well.

Soon, war broke out, and no longer could his rich patron commission bronze and lead to be diverted to the most magnificent horse statue of all time. The clay model was put up in Milan, and was used as target practice by the young lads joining the army.

“But isn’t there a big horse in Milan or Florence? Da Vinci’s horse? I remember seeing a picture somewhere.” said I.

“Yes, but that was not done by him. Years later, somebody else finished it. “, said the husband.

By now, we were all laughing.

“What is remarkable is his insatiable curiosity and creativity however, and though he went off down rabbit holes, it was from a deep motivation to understand the world around him “, said the husband.

Read also : Gates Notes on Leonardo Da Vinci

“These days it is so easy to take a picture of a horse, model it, and run a simulation for structural evaluations. We sometimes forget how hard studying movement must have been!” I said, remembering the essay by Oliver Sacks on the Elephant’s Gait, in the book, Everything in its Place.

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He writes about how more than a century ago, Etienne-Jules Marey & Eadward Muybridge pioneered the study of animals running using 24 cameras along a track where the shutter would be tripped by the horses themselves as they galloped past to capture the movements of the horse as they raced.

Persistence comes in various forms, we all agreed. Muybridge and Marey were examples in a long list of people for whom a problem was intriguing enough to delve deeper and deeper into things that may or may not yield results.

But we never know the breakthroughs possible, and how things will change. That is why I am vary of futurists. A few centuries ago, to study the muscles straining for a horse running, one had to have an almost eidetic memory, along with a decent understanding of anatomy.

Today, photography has come so far as to allow us to snap a thousand pictures, take slow motion videos, and analyze everything from a butterfly flutter to the swift flying of hummingbirds. People are still extraordinarily creative with photography, and as long as we retain curiosity and creativity, I suppose we shall thrive.

 

Una buona immagine

“Amma – you were sleep talking so much last night – it was hilarious!” said the daughter. The children and the husband giggled. In my defense, it had been a rather long few days. Roaming around in Rome had taken the wind out of my sails.

“I must have been tired!” I said. “ I had dreams of the weirdest nature. I dreamt the horses ran out of the picture, and out into the gardens that had the whomping willow type of tree.” (Pitti Palace & Boboli Gardens which are perfectly delightful to behold: A lovely spot of nature in Florence)

“Yes we know. And you sat up in bed sending Sabrina to get the horses back! Poor lady doesn’t have enough work in the reception, you have to send her galloping behind horses!”  I laughed with them. Sabrina had saved us considerable time by getting us a slot of time to visit the Uffizi Gallery.

I was trying to extricate the strands of weave from the coagulated mess in the brain. A number of galleries collapsed in the various chambers of the brain leaving the paintings smushed together. Waddling through the galleries with a coat hanging off one hand, a child off another and a bag on my shoulders, I wandered through the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael – entire galleries devoted to Renaissance artists. I naturally gravitated towards pictures featuring the rich myths, with a whiff of the beautiful Italian countryside in the background. The Birth of Venus, Primavera et al were as beautiful as everybody said, and had I known the nuances of art could have enjoyed it more.

 

I felt like one of those canvases that inspired the starry night by Van Gogh. All the different colors flowing into each other, forming a confused mess of colors, but having a unique kind of beauty in itself.

Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed - William Blake.

The first time we spotted a picture featuring a nude, the son tugged at my hand, and giggled, “Why isn’t he wearing any clothes?”

I giggled with him. Do you think this is what William Blake had in mind? The renaissance era with its developments in the anatomy and study of the human figure really did go overboard on the whole human body thing. Considering that it was winter in Italy, there we were dressed in thermals, sweaters, jackets, caps, gloves and socks, looking upon the stone cold statues of apparently virile, strong men with muscles exploding out of their bodies, and not a thread of clothing on them. It was amusing, and the pair of us giggled like children in the pristine halls of the museums.

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Standing outside a fountain on the way from one gallery to another, I posed for a photograph. I smiled and asked if the picture was okay. Apparently, it wasn’t.

The teenaged daughter took a deep breath and with the air of explaining basics to an idiot child started instructing me on the best method to pose for a photograph. Apparently, smiling like I am happy to be in the photograph is out.
“Go for this look.” she said, and looked morose, angry, pensive all at once. “And those shots of you standing in front of a place is so third century! Look at this one, “ said she showing me a picture of a person with a sharp nose in a red coat overlooking a ruin.

If it weren’t for the fact that she was looking stylish in my coat, I could barely have recognized her, and that, she said, was the angle you have to go for.

I am not sure I will get it entirely. I come from a generation that saw as many people crowded together in one frame as possible, and all of us smiled at the the count of three – with at least one blinking at the opportune moment. From there to this sort of “Don’t even show your best face, and please don’t smile” slide is a bit quick.

But after looking at the numerous pictures in the galleries across Rome, Florence & Venice, I can see the impulse. I mean this trend probably came from too many pictures. It is probably why Madonna looks apathetic holding a babe Jesus in her hands, who displays no curiosity in his surroundings or joy or mischief. It was quite disquieting to see picture after picture like this with frozen expressions. Was the smile frowned upon so much? I can understand the looks of anguish in the scenes of the crucifixion, but even in the more joyous pictures of Madonna and Child, can one not introduce a motif of joy?

 

That’s what our million pictures must look like isn’t it? Frozen expressions  “capturing the moment”. If we are capturing frozen expressions, I don’t mind jumping on those galloping horses out into the gardens from the painting with a wild look of freedom and joy on my face any day.

So that brings me back to the basic question of what constitutes a good picture (una buona immagine). Does every picture need to tell a story? Why is Mona Lisa so famous, and not the beautiful pictures of these ladies?

 

Please recommend books on the art of appreciating Art.

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