Heffalumps and oliphants
August 28, 2017 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Uli Westphal is a German artist who studies how humans perceive, depict and transform the natural world. In Elephas Anthropogenus, he traces (sometimes quite literally) how European illustrators who'd never seen an elephant reconstructed oral and written histories of what elephants looked like from C.E. 900-1765. All elephants are magnificent, but some elephants are more magnificent than others.
posted by deludingmyself (37 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's so cool!
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 7:36 PM on August 28


This is cool!
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:36 PM on August 28


I know! Thanks mod squad for fixing my typo!
posted by deludingmyself at 7:39 PM on August 28




My favorite elephant is 1479 elephant (the one whose trunk looks like a paper party horn), but unfortunately the source link is broken.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:40 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


At least some of them look like the illustrator had seen a reliable picture of an elephant.
posted by Laotic at 7:42 PM on August 28




not even a little bit close

Is that... a deer vomiting up a snake?
How did I miss that one?
posted by deludingmyself at 8:06 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


So, these drawings gradually evolved like a long form police sketch, with illustrators gradually getting more detailed descriptions?

(Very cool link, thanks for posting).
posted by ethical_caligula at 8:07 PM on August 28


So great. Wow--it's really fun to click through to the originals.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:22 PM on August 28


(Several of these, though, are mistakenly identified at attempts to depict elephants, when even a cursory glance makes perfectly clear that they are, instead, very accurate depictions of heffalumps.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:24 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


THIS is what a master's thesis is for.
posted by aniola at 8:39 PM on August 28 [6 favorites]


This is so very special thank you
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:47 PM on August 28


Now do Woozles!
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:48 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


That first one down on the bottom left is pretty mammoth + tiger, the length of the tusks... I wonder if that's based on seeing or hearing about mammoth fossils.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:54 PM on August 28


The way artists depicted animals they had never seen is a source of unending delight to me.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:05 PM on August 28


This chart is chock full of the ol' noot noot, that's for sure.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:06 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


THEY ARE ALL WONDERFUL

Not good elephants, per se, but they are very good at being what they are and that is enough for me.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:09 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino?
Elephino.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:20 PM on August 28 [5 favorites]


This reminds me of all those artists who'd never seen a lion but weren't going to let that stop them, either. It's just as hilarious.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 12:44 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Editing out everything but the elephant is sometimes a bit unfair. This one looks as if the artist thought elephants behaved like cats stalking a bird, but in the original picture it is clearly a dead elephant in the middle of a battle, flattened under the weight of a howdah.
posted by Segundus at 2:39 AM on August 29


Further proof of the existence of the now extinct quadruped Q*Bert.
posted by adept256 at 2:58 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


I once saw some drawings that were the result of one person describing a Pokémon to another person who had never seen it before (with the narrator providing no feedback during the drawing process.) The results were far less accurate than most of these!
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:37 AM on August 29


noot noot
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:58 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


And it's not easy if you've never seen a lion. From the 1730s, King Frederic's lion taxidermy.

(Mentioned many times in previous MF threads.)
posted by jjj606 at 5:13 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino?

I imagine this is part of a bad Tea Party comedy routine.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:34 AM on August 29


Hmm there are some good meme exploitables in there.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:13 AM on August 29


This is the coolest thing.
I remember being fascinated as a teenager by the evocativeness of Dürers 1515 Rhinocervs. Knowing that he never saw the animal. The wood cut shows the rhinoceros being covered in armour like plates instead of pliable skin. But still it evokes the ramrod like character of the rhinoceros almost better than a photograph.

As a student I learned about Van den naturen bloeme. A Dutch bestiary from 1217 that describes oliphants and rhinoceros' and swallows and unicorns and basilisks and myrmidons and antipodes etc. Partly rehashed from Aristotle and Herodotos etc partly added to. It's the most recognisable manifestion of 'culture'; defined as "not personally experienced knowledge". People didn't travel to let's say Africa. So anything they learned about it was through intermediaries. And intermediaries of intermediaries. Of course it made me wonder how much of my own knowledge I witnessed myself and how much I just repeated. A perspective that's particularly relevant now that 'knowledge' is so easily digitally simulated and so quickly propagated through going viral.
posted by jouke at 9:09 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Wow. Almost makes you want to pack your trunk and get out of town.

Dürers 1515 Rhinocervs . . .

Hah! And that's where I was going next. The difference being that Dürer had an eye at least for the probable, and made a creditable effort like a highly advanced police sketch artist. (Brandishes wood-cut: "Does this look like the creature that gored your purse, Ma'am?")
 
posted by Herodios at 9:36 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


I think calling it an "evolution" is confusing, given that in the 1250s, you got this pretty decent elephant, and then over 100 years later, you get a lion-stork hybrid.
posted by tau_ceti at 10:05 AM on August 29


And what's with that whole branch on the top right where the tusks are just totally all wrong?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:41 AM on August 29


I also just found a cross between an elephant and a trout.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on August 29


Looks like it was made with, you know, longing. Made by a person really longed to see a swan an elephant.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:30 PM on August 29 [3 favorites]


I remember being fascinated as a teenager by the evocativeness of Dürers 1515 Rhinocervs. Knowing that he never saw the animal. The wood cut shows the rhinoceros being covered in armour like plates instead of pliable skin. But still it evokes the ramrod like character of the rhinoceros almost better than a photograph.

Compare it to an Indian rhinoceros (on which it was based) rather than an African black or white rhinoceros (one of which is probably what you picture in your head when you think of a rhinoceros), and the resemblance is much clearer.
posted by jedicus at 1:48 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


There all good elephants.

Dürers 1515 Rhinocervs . . .

Durer drew his rhino from a text description he was sent. After that each rhino brought to Europe resulted in better illustrations (although most artist still employed Durer-like liberties). In 1741 the Dutch East India captain Douwe Mout van der Meer brought a 2 year old rhino named Clara from India to Rotterdam and began exhibiting it locally.

Here's where I think the story gets good.

In one of those crazy, improbable confluences of time and place at that very moment Bernhard Siegfried Albinus was working on his seminal anatomy text Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani. His artist, Jan Wandelaar, decided to spruce up the background of the plates and in two of them decided to include images of the local attraction, the then 3-yo Clara:

Wandelaar's Clara

Not only were Jan Wandelaar's illustrations a watershed in human anatomy (books have been written about the book), but he had, perhaps inadvertently, drew the first accurate representation of a rhino.

Postscript: van der Meer toured Clara throughout Europe and she was received in most royal courts. It was reported that Clara enjoyed having tobacco smoke blown up her nose and being fed beer - you know, like all Indian rhinos do.

Sorry if I'm going to far afield, but I really like this topic.
posted by codex99 at 2:23 PM on August 29 [8 favorites]


Ha that's awesome code99 that he added this curiosity in the background of his anatomical diagrams. Just because.
posted by jouke at 9:18 PM on August 29


Although the phrase "Picassoesque elephant" is thrown around far too much these days, the example at 1300-1350 makes a fair case to warrant its usage.
posted by Flippervault at 11:02 AM on August 31


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