Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen on the en­dur­ing artis­tic fas­ci­na­tion with horses

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

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