Why is a rhinoceros like a writing desk? (May 14 newsletter)

The rhinoceros is arresting — 600 pounds of bronze standing four-square at the door. French artists and writers seem fascinated by rhinos half a century ago. Salvador Dali evolved his own philosophy around them, Eugène Ionesco made them the force of the mob in a surrealist play, and François-Xavier Lalanne cast this one into a life-sized sculpture, half real and half abstract.

He’s waiting at the entrance to Nature Transformed, the new exhibit of sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne at the Clark Art Institute. They were husband and wife for 40 years, and in different ways they shared a playful eye for natural shapes turned subtly askew. I’ve been waiting for this show to open for a year, and seeing it feels like the first intimation of summer.

I’m here on a day when heavy cloud is streaming across vivid blue sky and the light keeps shifting unexpectedly, rain one second and sun the next. The reflecting pools are full again, and the maples are opening new leaves. The tree line ripples, out the window and across the water, and it seems to echo the curving lip of the cabbage leaf in front of me. It’s as tall as I am, and it has the rich blue-green patina of old copper … and feet like Baba Yaga’s cottage.

Somehow I keep thinking of shape-shifters, maybe because so many of these forms are blended, half-real or half-cabbage. A woman smiles in her sleep with vines trailing over her cheek like strands of hair. An apple opens a human mouth, and I want to laugh and listen to it murmur.

Looking at the rhinoceros — and somehow I think François-Xavier meant this fellow as male — I’m thinking how little I know of the mythology around him. I remember the Karkadann in Persian and Indian legend, a massive creature out of the dry high plains with a horn that can cure.

If he could transform into a living form or open his mouth and speak, I wonder how his voice would sound and what languages he would know, and what stories he would tell.

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