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SO SOCAL: The Best...The Beautiful...And the Bizarre
: ART DEPT

Lincoln Monumental

April 11, 1999|Ed Leibowitz

In Washington D.C.'s Ford Theatre, one of Dr. Emil Seletz's enormous busts of Abraham Lincoln stares at the same stage that the president looked upon when he was shot 134 years ago this week. Another presidential bronze was admitted into the White House in 1996, while a third Seletz Lincoln directs its profound gaze on those entering the County Administration Building in downtown L.A.

Seletz, 90, is the retired chief of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and sculptor of the painstakingly precise 700-pound heroic busts of Einstein and Beethoven, David Ben Gurion and Will Rogers that crowd his Los Feliz backyard. Recently, before his health suddenly declined, he delivered a diagnosis of his most cherished subject. "He has an asymmetry," Seletz begins of Lincoln, "a malocclusion of the jaw." To better demonstrate, the physician mimics the distended lower lip of the dignified mouth that delivered the dirge at Gettysburg. Seletz spent eight years making a physiological study of that mouth so that he might capture its essence in bronze.

For six decades, Seletz rendered the Great Emancipator as the principled Springfield lawyer, as a beardless president-elect, as the bedraggled commander-in-chief who won a war at the cost of so much blood and horror that his mournful, occluded jaw almost melts into his neck. "He has the most beautiful face I've ever seen," Seletz says. "More beautiful than any woman's."

The neurosurgeon's preoccupations with art and Lincoln sprang from his boyhood in post-World War I Chicago. Although his father read him some well-worn tales of honest Abe trudging miles to return a misappropriated penny, the story that took root in Seletz's imagination was more arcane. "He was going to meet Stephen Douglas for a debate," Seletz recalls. "And--this is rather ridiculous--he found a pig stuck in a mudhole."

The Republican candidate shucked off his topcoat and plucked the squealing, mud-besmirched animal from its doom. "That's a very strange man," Seletz muses, "who would bother to save a pig when he was on his way to debate for president."

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