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Lucy Kemp-Welch, Horses bathing in the sea, 1900. Oil on canvas. Estate of Lucy Kemp-Welch. National Gallery of Victoria, Author provided

The Horse: reframing the history of human progress

Throughout history, the horse has occupied a powerful place in the emotional, spiritual and daily lives of human beings.

It is said that one day in 1889 when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a horse, harnessed to a hansom cab, being cruelly whipped in the streets of Turin, Italy, he ran across the road and threw his arms around the animal’s neck, sobbing.

He suffered a severe mental breakdown and spent the remainder of his life in an asylum, refusing to speak again.

In 2011, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr made an acclaimed film, The Turin Horse, which recounts this famous episode. Tarr says his philosophical drama is about the “heaviness” of existence.

Horses appear in our art, myth, religion, poetry, song, philosophy, literature and film; often in a philosophical context.

Greece, Chalsis, The Inscriptions Painter (Archaic Period, 540 BC). Psykter amphora, Battle scene from the Trojan War. Chalkidian black-figure ware, fired clay. Felton Bequest, 1956. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In the magnificent exhibition The Horse, at the National Gallery of Victoria, curators Laurie Benson and Ted Gott present works that not only reveal the incredible beauty and grace of the horse, but also explore all aspects of the lives of horses — particularly Tarr’s theme of the heaviness of existence.

Organised in five sections — Myth, Legend, Miracle, Pageant, Conflict, Labour and Pleasure — the exhibition is a celebration of the horse. It also offers a fascinating social history of the horse.

The exhibition displays art works drawn exclusively from the NGV’s own vast collection, which covers the Ancient World, Europe, the Middle East, India and Australia.

Frederick Woodhouse Senior, 1820–1909. The Cup of 1862-1863, oil on canvas. Donated by Mr F. W. Prell, 1889 Victoria Racing Club Collection. The National Gallery of Victoria, Author provided

The first painting the viewer encounters is Lucy Kemp-Welch’s (main image) Horses bathing in the sea (1900). Their riders, military men, sit bareback as the mighty horses dip and plunge in the waves. Although horsemen over the centuries have disparagingly talked about the need to “break-in” a horse, to “tame its spirit”, these horses appear strong powerful and muscular — their spirit is not for breaking.

Chinese Female equestrian (Tang dynasty 618 AD–907 AD). Henan / Shaanxi province, north China earthenware, pigments. Gift of H. W. Kent, 1938. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Nearby, the earthenware statue, Female Equestrian, from the Tang dynasty depicts horse and rider unified in quiet repose. They share a common bond. Horse is a beautiful, thoughtful, and at times, confronting celebration of the relationship between humans and horses over the last three thousand years and the crucial role that horses have played in the evolution of civilisation.

While celebrating the noble achievements of the horse, the exhibition does not shirk from pointing out the great cost to horses of their relationship with human beings. This is emphasised in the section on Conflict and the crucial role played by horses in war from classical times to the modern period.

Septimus Power, Cavalry charge at Cambrai (c. 1919). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, CC BY

Septimus Power’s stirring Cavalry charge at Cambrai (c. 1919) depicts horses and soldiers in a frenzy of movement as they gallop towards the enemy. Obedient to their riders, the horses charge forward united in purpose and fate. The curators note that during World War 1, 130,000 Waler horses were shipped from Australia to Egypt, the Middle East and Europe and only one returned. The majority were either sold or shot as it was too costly to bring them home.

Pierre-Marie Beyle, The last resting place of Coco (La Derniere Étape de Coco) (1878). Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

One of the most emotionally confronting works, on the theme of Labour, is Pierre-Marie Beyle’s The Last Resting Place of Coco (1878). Deliberately appealing directly to the viewer’s emotions, it illustrates an important topic of discussion in the late 19th century. Lying on the snow-covered ground, and still harnessed to the caravan, Coco has simply died from exhaustion.

Husband, wife and son look on as the family dog sits in the snow beside Coco, staring intently into the horse’s face as if willing him to stand up and keep going.

The viewer is forced to wonder why the family pushed the horse so hard that it collapsed and died from overwork. Were they completely lacking in empathy?

Septimus Power, Toilers (1940). Oil on canvas. Felton Bequest, 1941. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

It is Septimus Power’s Toilers (1940) that captures the great strength and muscular beauty of living, working horses as they pull a plough through the hard soil, obedient to the farmer with his raised switch. Dorothea Lange’s stunning photograph, Spring Ploughing (1937), with its focus on man as the workhorse is worth a visit on its own.

Odilon Redon, Pegasus (Pégase) (1900–05). Pastel, distemper, charcoal and incising on paper on cardboard. Felton Bequest, 1951. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Two standout works both explore the role of myth in our lives: Odilon Redon’s Pegasus (1900-1905) and Michael Cook’s Civilized #1 (2012). Redon’s mysterious Pegasus, the winged stallion of Greek mythology (born of Poseidon and the Medusa), stands with his head arched, wings aloft, and one foot raised according to the legend whereby the white stallion struck his hoof to the ground and a spring then gushed forth.

The naked man at his side is the hero, Bellerophon, whom Pegasus allowed to ride him in order to slay the Chimera. Man and horse are united by line and colour, but it is Pegasus who, in his graceful and fragile beauty, draws the eye. Why did the proud horse allow himself to be “tamed”?

Cook’s Civilized #1 is even more enigmatic. The photograph depicts a man standing by the sea; his body is muscular and lithe, while his head is a mask of a horse’s head. Waves crash at his feet, grey clouds swirl in the background.

Cook’s half-man, half-horse is the opposite of the mythical centaur. The white colonialists of course introduced the horse to Australia. The creature appears to be reading lines of script in the sky. These are the well-known words of Captain Cook:

They are human creatures … more entitled to his favour [they] may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than … we Europeans.

Civilized #1 belongs to the artist’s “What-If” series in which he reworks Australian history from an Indigenous perspective. A surreal, dreamlike work, Civilized #1 offers only questions. What-If the white settlers had listened to Cook’s words? What-If the colonialists had nurtured, rather than destroyed, their bond with nature?

By imaginatively re-staging the past, Cook liberates history from itself and creates a space to ask new questions.

There is so much to think about in this exhibition: how essential the horse is to the evolution of civilization; the sacrifice of the horse to human progress; the bond between human and horse; human cruelty to the horse; the relationship of women and horses; and human worship of the horse.

In this sense, it also tells us a great deal about ourselves – our passions, desires, betrayals and loyalties.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey (Le Jockey) (1899). Colour lithograph. Felton Bequest, 1974. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

The section on the horse in contemporary times explores the theme of pleasure. The works, artefacts and costumes on the history of horse-racing and the Melbourne Cup are fascinating. These point to the main use of the horse today in the western world.

The reduction of the horse’s contemporary significance to a racing carnival, however, makes one yearn for a more ethical relationship between human and animal — perhaps the one that Cook’s creature is pondering as he looks out across the churning waves.

The Horse is at the National Gallery of Victoria until November 8, details here.

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