Supported by the Victoria Racing Club and Sofitel Luxury Hotels, the exhibition The Horse at the NGV International is full of pathos, much more than a showcase for the horse as ‘art’. This ‘survey of three thousand years of The Horse from 1000 BC to the present day’ is seen through antiquities, major paintings, riding garments, saddles, sculptures, trophies and decorative arts and they engage all of our emotions.
Gleaned from the galleries extensive collection, includingworks by Germany’s Albrecht DÜRER (1471–1528), Spain’s Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669), France’s Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Australia’s John Brack (1920-1999), Frederick McCubbin and Jenny Watson (1951- )., its creative curators Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, and Laurie Benson have presented this extra special show in very fine style.
According to an ancient Greek Myth Poseidon, God of the Sea spawned the world’s first horse, Skyphios; Poseidon became known as a ‘tamer of horses’, the first deity in Greek mythology to control this powerful force of nature.
Perseus, one of the greatest of the Greek heroes was often depicted in art riding astride Pegasus, rescuing the Aethopian princess Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. One of the real gems the NGV has mounted in recent years, this exhibition is spread over a number of rooms on the ground floor, with free entry for all.
For me it was a real treat, illustrated by a dazzling array of over 250 works from ancient ceramics to powerful paintings and from metalwork to bronze and gold. Gilded bronze is what the French artist Emmanuel Frémiet’s portrait of Saint George and the Dragon is made from. Dating from 1891 it was purchased with funds granted to the Gallery by the now famous bequest of Alfred Felton in 1905.
Saint George rescuing the maiden from the evil dragon is symbolic of the tale that traces back to the time of Perseus. George venerated as a martyr for the Christian cause is the patron Saint of England. It immediately brought to my mind the great English Bard William Shakespeare’s quote…‘A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
Informative and perfect to engage children from toddlers to teens and adults of all ages, this landmark exhibition provides a visual record of how man’s favourite animal down the centuries became valued, not only for their vital contribution to daily life and the achievements of man, but also for their aesthetic beauty.
Among the many outstanding objects on show made from metal is the world’s most desired gold trophy. It is none other than the long-believed missing 1930 Melbourne Cup, won by Australia’s racehorse of legend Phar Lap, who became an object of national pride following his victory.
The trophy has been lent to the NGV and is displayed for the first time in any Australian art gallery, timing perfectly with Australia’s most spectacular two mile annual racing event held on the the first Tuesday each November as part of the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival.
From the moment you enter you are engaged completely, encountering English Edwardian artist Lucy Kemp-Welch’s wonderfully playful painting Horses bathing in the sea, hung cleverly by curators at eye level.
Using the blue-violet colour palette of the Impressionists of the late nineteenth century, Kemp-Welch sat protected from surf and storm each night to capture the movement of the waves en plein air, producing a huge work over three metres wide and one and a half metres deep, which is totally captivating.
Frolicking through the waves is a troop of cavalry horses dominating the scene, which are captured so superbly by Kemp-Welch as they played on the sandbanks at Parkstone in Dorset with their handlers.
It’s a scene I relate to well.
As a child growing up at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, racehorses often came to bathe in the sea at the beach in the early morning light where I was swimming with my father.
A hugely popular artist in her day Lucy Kemp-Welch (1859-1958) is perhaps best remembered for her illustrations in the 1915 edition of Anna Sewell’s classical tale of a horse, Black Beauty.
This was a book I owned as a child, marvelling at her illustrations of the hero horse.
At the time of the painting and indeed again during the 50’s in Australia, sea bathing was known to be good for both a human’s and a horse’s health and wellbeing
It was a scene Kemp-Welch had witnessed many times and this scene captured on canvas is powerfully charged, painted with great technical skill and assured draughtsmanship.
The grouping of three ceramic horses, two with female equestrian riders from China held my attention. I do have a particular liking for works from the Tang dynasty.
It is one of the dynasties we recognise through its ceramic figures.
Of all the enduring images of the Tang are their figures of superb horses, such as the one in harness.
He is painted with three colour lead glazes, which were in vogue with Tang potters for a short time from about 680 – 750.
Ceramics, like so many other disciplines in the arts, cannot be viewed in isolation but in their relationship to other arts and the society of each age.
Cross cultural fertilisation’s are many in the long history of ceramics, be they oriental or occidental, and their seeds were spilled far and wide, from one country to another, from one ware to another and, from one medium to another.
The Tang (618-907) dynasty saw the prestige of China growing throughout Asia and she became involved with affairs beyond her frontiers.
Missions of commercial, rather than diplomatic, also reached China from India and according to one report, from Byzantium. Iran sent embassies between 713 and 750 that included dancers, musicians and horsemen.
The game of Polo, invented in Iran, became favoured at the Chinese court, which was partial to anything of an exotic flavour.
A number of exotic illustrations from Persia, Japan and India are included. One particular work dating from 1763, rendered as an opaque watercolour and gold paint on paper, comes from Rajasthan, depicting Maharana Ari Singh II hunting bear.
Court painting flourished during his reign as he commissioned hundreds of portraits of individual horses and enormously unpopular because of his bad temper, it’s ironic perhaps that he was assassinated while on a hunting expedition
Another painting. I was glad to view is one that is also assuredly painted by a master technician. While much smaller, is just as powerful English painter George STUBBS work a lion attacking a horse (c. 1765) was also purchased through the Felton Bequest.
Capturing the essence and uniqueness of each animal, their beauty, breeding and speed his anatomical knowledge of the horse shines through.
Stubbs was without doubt the most outstanding equine artist of his time, his works revealing the distinctive characteristics of the horse, veins, bones, muscles and eyes, especially on this canvas where the most outstanding feature is the ability to convey the horse’s fear.
French Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was the most famous bohemian artist of the so called beautiful era in the late nineteenth century.
He was the quintessential recorder of society and culture.
His skill as a draughtsman and willingness to experiment with bold composition are evident in his depiction of Le Jockey 1899, another Felton Bequest acquisition. It’s a colour lithograph, one of an edition of 112 produced in 1899.
It’s all about the power and pace of racehorses.
The contribution of horses to many economies around the world is staggering.
Just the maintenance of the thoroughbred horses alone requires other large industries to support them, let alone their training for circus, carriage, equestrian or horse racing events
In the world of horse racing in Australia the industry alone contributes over $6.2 billion dollars a year to the economy, so it demands respect.
Then quite separately but integral to it is a focus on Fashions in the Field.
The elite of horse racing going enthusiasts dress to the nines to attend race meetings from Royal Ascot in England to Pimlico in Baltimore from Happy valley in Hong Kong to Derby Day down under in Melbourne and Sydney.
The Melbourne Cup was first run in 1861 and quickly became the most important horserace in Australia. Archer, winner of the first two Melbourne Cups, was walked by his jockey all the way from Sydney some 870 kilometres away.
He is seen in the left side of the foreground ridden by John Cutts, who wears black. This painting depicts the frenzied start of the Cup’s second running.
One of the great finale pieces of the show shows ladies of the demi-monde in all their finery captured by the Austrian artist Carl Kahler (1855–1906), who worked in Australia 1885–90 and the United States 1890–1906.
In 1887 he perfectly captured The Betting Ring at Flemington racecourse in Melbourne where the Melbourne Cup race is run.
Another giant work on canvas, also hung at eye level this monumental work allows everyone to get up close and personal with the incredible attention to detail of the many faces in the crowd recorded by the artist for posterity. Just like the rest of the exhibition it is truly incredible.
The Horses however are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they are on the way to the starting line and getting ready to jump…
… For down the years it’s history,
How losers come and go -
And horses who with bursting hearts
Can make the legends grow
The memories of champions
Will always linger on -
Immortalised forever by
The race at Flemington!
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Panoramic in its historical breadth and encyclopaedic in its range of materials drawn from every area of the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection, The Horse documents and celebrates the central role this animal has played in the development of human civilisation and art. H
The winged horse-god Pegasus features alongside equestrian Amazon women, and ancient Greek vases adorned with horses sit adjacent to Chinese dynastic funerary sculpture. The horse is believed to have made its way from China to Japan via the Korean Peninsula, and it has played an important role in Japanese culture.
In Indian Rajasthan during the eighteenth century, images of rulers on horseback became highly popular, demonstrated by a selection of the NGV’s remarkable Rajasthan miniatures.
The equine’s role in conflict is explored in art through the ages, from scenes of knights jousting and battles in Europe to the legendary Australian Light Horse of the First World War. Other themes explored include the horse’s role in recreation and sport; the horse as an important means of transportation, communication and agricultural labour; and the enduring glamour of equestrian imagery in the world of fashion.
St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Until 8th November, 2015