Visual arts Christopher Allen on the enduring artistic fascination with horses
The Horse NGV International. Until November 8.
Humans have deep, complex and often morally inconsistent relations with animals. We train them to work for us, we eat them, we watch them in zoos and on nature documentaries even while contributing to their extinction; as pets, they serve as companions to the old and lonely, as substitute children for those who lack them, or even, when very expensive, as another extension of the ego.
Our deepest fascination with animals, however, stems precisely from the fact that they are creatures devoid of ego. When we watch birds, for example, we can see that they are driven by instincts and appetites, by the pure energy of life, the manifestations of the great force that Schopenhauer calls Will. They have no selfconsciousness; no memory, no anticipation of the future, no fear, anxiety or guilt, no greed or covetousness or disappointment.
They enjoy or suffer what is present and never muddy that immediate reality with the illusions of the mind, and that is why they seem so joyful in pleasure and so stoical in pain. They are completely free of all the things with which most humans make their own lives a misery.
This is why children respond so viscerally to animals, because they themselves still have an imperfectly formed ego and retain some of that utterly spontaneous and unselfconscious vitality; they recognise themselves in creatures of all kinds and can be far more intensely absorbed in them than is usual in adults.
Of course it is unavoidable and indeed essential for humans to develop self-consciousness, self-criticism, self-control and responsibility. But unfortunately this process is hard to achieve without accumulating burdens of pain, humiliation, covetousness and fear, which then ossify into the habits of an unreflecting and unexamined adult self.
Myths of Eden and the fall of man reflect the inevitable loss of childhood innocence. Humans cannot remain in a pre-egoic stage of development, buffeted by the forces of unselfconscious instinct and appetite. They have to grow up and assume control of themselves; but then the next step is to understand that there is more to life than living inside a dysfunctional shell of wants and anxieties. That is when we need to take time to have another look at the birds.
Or indeed at horses, for there is no animal except dogs with which we feel such an affinity, and with which we can communicate so intimately. Our relations with horses, moreover, are more exalted than with dogs, for they are much bigger and stronger than we are, and have always inspired a kind of awe in us. And yet we ride them, sharing in the exaltation of their power and speed.
There are countless images of mounted figures in this fascinating and extremely diverse exhibition — riding in war, in races, in pagean- try or posing for an equestrian portrait, always the grandest kind and mostly reserved for monarchs, as we see in examples from England to India; there is also the intriguing case of an engraving of Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I which was turned into one of his arch-enemy Cromwell, before being once again converted, under the Restoration, to its original subject.
Of all the images of riding, none is more vivid than Lautrec’s, whose view of both jockey and mount from behind and to one side reveals the similarity of anatomical structure in each case. All mammals have virtually the same skeletal structure, varying essentially in proportions and in shape. Thus the human chest opens with our upright stance, bringing our shoulder blades close together and giving us the shoulders that quadrupeds lack.
Quadrupeds and even apes also lack the strongly developed gluteus maximus muscle — the human bottom — that keeps the spine erect. But the most striking difference in the anatomy of the horse is that metacarpal and metatarsal bones have grown to form a tripartite leg instead of the bipartite one that we share with elephants.
If we understand where the knee and heel of the horse really are, Lautrec’s picture becomes even more impressive and strange: we see one body riding on another with almost the same legs, pelvic girdle, rib-cage and so on.
It is perhaps partly because of these analogies between the rider and the ridden that the idea of the centaur appeared in mythology, one of the few theriomorphic creatures — together with satyrs — that we encounter in Greek art. In some early images of the centaur, the creature is imagined as a complete human form with the rear section of a horse attached behind; but much more commonly it is thought of as a human torso attached to the front of an otherwise complete horse.
Exactly how this junction would work anatomically does not usually trouble artists, although it seems to have been on Max Klinger’s mind in his very odd etching and aquatint of horsemen pursuing a centaur fleeing through a wheatfield; Klinger seems to imply that the cervical vertebrae of the horse continue into the lumbar vertebrae of the human part.
Guido Reni was less concerned with the internal than the external details in his study for the torso of Nessus for his Dejaneira and Nessus, which was in the collection of Louis XIV and is today in the Louvre. The NGV also owns a fine engraving of this pic- ture, which hangs beside the drawing and reminds us that one reason for the importance of centaurs in mythology was that Nessus became the cause of the death of Heracles.
Heracles shot the centaur — with an arrow dipped in the poison of the Hydra — when he attempted to rape Dejaneira, but as Nessus died, he deceived the girl into thinking that his blood would be a powerful love potion.
Years later, as recounted in Sophocles’s Trachiniae, she rubbed it on a garment that she sent to her husband, hoping to reconquer his love; but the blood, tainted with the fatal poison, began to eat at Heracles’s flesh, causing him unbearable agony until, ordering his own funeral pyre to be lit, his mortal part was consumed by the lightning of his father Zeus and he joined the gods on Olympus.
The other most famous story concerning the centaurs was of their battle with the Lapiths after they became drunk at a wedding feast and attempted to rape the Lapith women. The story was illustrated in the metopes of the Parthenon and appears in this exhibition too. The centaurs, prone to drunkenness, violence and rape, can represent the barbaric other, but can equally stand for dangerous and irrational drives in our own nature.
The horse itself can also stand for part of our own nature, as it does in Plato’s myth of the chariot of the soul in the Phaedrus, with its one good and one bad horse.
And a story such as that of Alexander and his famous horse Bucephalus epitomises the double symbolism: Bucephalus was a young horse so wild and fierce that none but Alexander himself could break him; but once tamed, he became the king’s constant companion both in valour and in endurance.
The romantic period loved horses, as we see in the work of Gericault or here in Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Marcus Curtius. And horses are clearly a counterpart of the human in a subject that goes back to antiquity, and appears in the work of Raphael and especially Rubens, but which particularly appealed to the romantics: a lion attacking and killing a horse.
In Stubbs’s painting of the subject, the panic of the horse seems to express all the fascinated horror of romanticism before the irrational world that they had rediscovered after the age of the Enlightenment.
Images of the horse in war extend from an archaic Greek vase depicting a scene from the Trojan War — when horses pulled chariots but were not ridden — to the Renaissance and later periods and as far as the World War I, the last conflict in which cavalry could still play an important role.
The great model of all subsequent horse battles was a work that Leonardo never finished, and which was later destroyed or perhaps, as is now suspected, painted over: the Battle of Anghiari, whose tangle of furious mounted warriors survives in copies by Rubens and others and which inspired the horse battles of Raphael, Giulio Romano and later baroque artists.
Because of their martial associations and the cost of their breeding and upkeep, horses were traditionally the appanage of princes and aristocrats, and from Alcibiades — or Aristophanes’s
Horses bathing in the sea (1900) by
Lucy Kemp-Welch, above
Toilers (1940), left, by Septimus Power; Saint George and the Dragon (1891) by Emmanuel Fremiet French, below