An Oval with Points, a Nose, an Elephant

Oval with points WS“Have you ever taken pictures of this before?” the security guard asked me just after I pressed the shutter for a photo of this sculpture on the Princeton campus.

“Just one wide shot a few weeks back when it was snowing,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“Have you seen the nose?”

“Uh, no.”

“Follow me,” he said, and he made his way up a walkway, chatting away. “I tell people whenever I see them taking pictures, because it changes as you walk around this side, and some people miss it. See the nose now?”

“Yes, I do.” And there it was. Plain as the… er, well, you know.

“We call it Nixon’s nose,” he said, and wished me a “blessed day” as he continued his rounds.

Oval with Points from sideFrom this angle, it did resemble a face with a prominent nose. Walk further around it and the face contorts, like the comedy/tragedy masks on a theater facade.

The bronze sculpture is one of a handful of casts of Sir Henry Moore’s “Oval With Points,” and it sits on a lawn next to Princeton’s Nassau Hall. There are other casts of the work in Kew Gardens and the Columbus Museum of Art. I’ve seen several of this British artist and sculptor’s works in my various travels. Most impressive are his large bronze sculptures like this Oval with Points.

And though the sculpture was created during the same years Nixon was in office, the genesis of the piece was not that infamous President’s famous profile, but the skull of an elephant. British evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley brought home a skull from East Africa and showed it to his friend and fellow knight Henry Moore. Moore became fascinated with the curves of the skull and its empty eye sockets and, as the story goes, his close study of the elephant head inspired this oval cum face.

Oval with points, profileBut none of the literature I found about the work confirms whether the protuberance is a proboscis.

Though the sculpture is now roped off to allow the grass to grow back, judging by the areas where the green patina has rubbed away to shiny bronze, it’s clear many hands and buttocks have polished parts of this artwork over the years, as people posed for photos and children played and climbed on it. Just as Henry Moore intended.

But what of the other intentions of this pointed oval, inspired by a dead elephant, appearing like a face?

Is that a nose? Only Moore knows.

And he’s taken the secret with him to the elephant’s graveyard.

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