The beastliness of modern art

Call me a Yahoo but if you prick up your ears you might just catch the sound of mass whinnying; the pawing of hoofs and the odd titanic neigh coming from somewhere in north Kent where Mark Wallinger will be installing his colossal gee-gee by the Ebbsfleet railway station in time for the Olympic influx in 2012. Fifty metres high, that’s a hell of a croup, a monster fetlock. But then contemporary art seems so stampeded with equimania that an extra-terrestrial visiting in time for Frieze (and they probably are) could be forgiven for assuming that, from Queen to commoners, Britain is in the grip of an esoteric cult of the filly and the stallion.

Petrified horses are closing in on the West End of London where War Horse commands the stage. On Park Lane, David Backhouse’s Animals in War memorial features a noble patriotic dobbin and only a few months back, minding my own business at night, I caught sight of something colossal mounted on high where the Lane meets Bayswater Road. By daylight, the object turned out to be one of Nic Fiddian-Green’s decapitated and slightly shattered outsize horse-heads.

But then the animal fetish to which much contemporary art is surprisingly devoted carries with it a heavy pack of associations. Wallinger’s “Angel of the South” may be an ultimately augmented version of a miniature toy horse but let’s hope the Eurostar passengers aren’t deep in their Homer or they may find the colossus a bit too Trojan for comfort.

While the bestiary has long been close to the heart of British modernism, its obsessions have generally been not horsey but sheepish and cow-eyed, with an ironic yen for exploring the weird connection between butchery, sacrifice and salvation enshrined in Christian iconography. Damien Hirst’s “Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain” (2007), for example, with its bovine, arrow-pierced martyrdom, has all kinds of precedents, not just in the multiple piercings of Piero del Pollaiuolo’s 15th-century Sebastian but also in Rembrandt’s “Flayed Ox” of the 1650s, the latter a meaty martyrdom for the Calvinists, the carcase strung out on its wooden cross like an even more animal version of the younger Rembrandt’s Passion paintings with their tragically beastly torment and howling. “There is a kind of tragedy about all those pieces,” Hirst has said of his bisected and formaldehyded animals, and, however laconic he comes across, almost all of his strongest work taps into that most forgotten but deepest strain in British culture – its ancient perfervid religiosity.

Hirst’s most famous sheep piece, “Away from the Flock” (1994), strands a little woolly jumper, pathetically and permanently separated from ewe and flock: it means much less without summoning the ghosts of lambs past: the Van Eyck brothers’ 1432 triptych – the first great altar masterpiece in oils – of the sacred lamb in Ghent, for example, or Piero della Francesca’s triumphant lamb of the Resurrection. Hirst might have strayed across the livestock lines by drawing on William Holman Hunt’s “Scapegoat” (1854-1856) but he certainly knows the whole host of strayed lamb parable paintings – whether Hunt’s “The Hireling Shepherd” (1851) bringing the flock into danger by flirting with the shepherdess while his sheep wander to the alien corn, or Ford Madox Brown’s lavishly lurid “Pretty Baa-Lambs” (1851-1859).

Hirst’s contemporary bestiary, whether fixed or butchered, bears witness and pays backhand homage to the equation in Christianity between sacrifice and salvation; makes a meal out of it, perhaps, but also exposes what we take for granted as something infinitely strange and tragic. Today’s horse-mania, however, is different, disconcertingly upbeat and heroic, even when, as in Backhouse’s Animals in War monument (2004), it is striving to be tragic. The sculptor had the odd instinct to represent his subjects not torn and mangled as they have been on the field of battle but as intact ghosts, so that they seem, peculiarly, to be inspecting themselves at the wall of their memorialisation rather like the bereaved families hunting for names of the lost on Maya Lin’s Vietnam monument.

But then horse-imagery goes in precisely the opposite direction from that of the slaughtered meat-animals. Cattle and sheep graze unknowing that they are destined for the butcher’s whetted knife, and their transcendence as symbols of our own collective sin is in some deep sense wired to our faint but lingering awkwardness about making meat of their innocence. Horse and rider, on the other hand, move almost as equals, each ennobling the other. So while sheep and cattle recur as images of Christian sin and atonement; man and horse fused together canter through history as the unapologetic symbol of classical power.

Far better than Backhouse’s confused literalism is “The Black Horse” (2003) by the young Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere, a wry but strangely poignant take on equine pedigree and the cultish obsession with bloodlines and breeding. Instead of a specimen perfected by so many calculations of sire and dam, de Bruyckere stitches together, literally, a horse of many parts that undergoes vertebral collapse from the disaster of its misconstruction.

De Bruyckere’s mischief works to disfigure the tradition, stretching back to antiquity – Perseus and Pegasus, Bucephalus painted by Alexander’s pet artist Apelles – of the complementary fit between horse and rider. Courtier painters such as Titian, Van Dyck, Rubens and Velázquez all followed in delivering images of fantastic sovereignty, the prince’s hand nonchalantly reining his great horse even or especially in the perilous stance of the levade, front feet raised off the ground. When aristocratic political cultures such as Hanoverian England dispersed that power, the warhorse gave way to the racehorse; the courtier artist to the sporting painter. There were many sporting painters but only George Stubbs transcended the genre by delivering pictures in which horses and men were virtual peers. Stubbs changed the nature of the genre from equestrian portraits to horse portraiture. The secret of his success lay in his unparalleled mastery of equine body language: the flare of a nostril, the widening of an eye, the accurate fixing of gait and stance. Stubbs was the first to realise that, hitherto, equine representation had been conforming to templates supplied largely by the Renaissance; and that freshly exacting anatomical study, a scientific accumulation of empirical information, was the condition of individualising his subjects; of making not just horse portraits but something like equine genre paintings.

It was only by being a true anatomist, which is to say, using death to inform the trick of life, that Stubbs could produce The Anatomy of the Horse (1766), the masterpiece that made his name and fortune. Subjects would be brought to his attic studio where he would hang them in a complicated harness-contraption from the ceiling and then methodically and slowly bleed them to death, injecting the veins and arteries with tallow to painstakingly preserve their external appearance through the skin. Eventually he would proceed to a flaying and thence to a careful, systematic dissection. What a Gothic romance! It was only from this shocking, protracted intimacy in which love and death were bloodily commingled, that Stubbs was able to liberate the horse from its confinement in the conventions of equestrian studies and reconstruct the pure animal as though never saddled: creating what were, in effect, equestrian nudes such as “Whistlejacket” (1762) or fantasies of entire families of mares and foals gathered together in some imaginary glade like a school of Houynhyms (Stubbs could hardly have avoided Gulliver’s Travels, which was published in 1726 and revised in 1735).

That moment caught on the cusp between anatomical science and romance became trapped in the next generation of saddle-sore melodramas from Théodore Géricault’s doomed chasseurs to Frederic Remington’s cult of the cowboy. We’re not far from Marlboro country now and the holy relic of stuffed Trigger. The nail in the coffin of equestrian kitsch was supplied, finally, by Maurizio Cattelan. It seems improbable that Cattelan could have been unaware of the famous story of Stubbs’s contraption when he designed his own. With “Novecento” (1997), though, what Cattelan does is to convert a harness designed expressly to transport racehorses safely from stall to stable, to precisely the opposite, an exhibit of their lifelessness. As an end run round the long equestrian tradition, it is, I guess, a mildly amusing, ultimately banal deconstruction. But it does, at the very least, make an economical obituary.

Taxidermy (and the chemistry of the morgue) has been something close to a cult obsession with our contemporary gang. We get it, we get it, you often want to howl in the presence of some of the postmodern confections, now show me something you’ve really pondered, not just a high-school truism about the world drowning in the bloody slops of the abattoir. And back they come as if to say, no, that’s not it at all, actually; the reason we dip carcases into formaldehyde, why we (or our hirelings) are so busy stuffin’ ’n’ stitchin’, is because we’re really making a point about art itself; the unselfconsciousness with which all representation is a form of gussied-up taxidermy; the fixing of fugitive moments. Art may be the victory over decay but, guess what, the contemporary artist protests, it can’t be done. The end result of all that effort is merely a sub-species of deadness. So the contrary gesture is to foreground precisely the repugnant processes that the fake aesthetic of the perfect death, the immaculate mortality, belies. Instead, Damien Hirst’s “Thousand Years” (1990) made decay or rather the relentless cycle of death and regeneration, the maggot and the blowfly born from the rotting head, the point of it all.

But re-creation is all it sometimes is, and you sigh and shrug and hope for something with more artful staying power. Above all, I think my occasional wistfulness about the gap between the conceptual high-mindedness of the grand titles – “A Thousand Years”, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – and the yield of true illumination comes from a sense of redundancy; all this feverishly Tarantinesque labouring to see off the traditional death aesthetic by substituting what in the end is an equally artificial new death aesthetic; the varnish of the Passion piece replaced by the vat of stinky chemicals.

Anyone who really knows the much-despised art historical canon will also know that, far from artists such as Goya having been unaware of the relationship between sculpture and slaughter, many went out of their way to put it down on paper and canvas. What, asks Goya over and again, are we? We are the butchers – and the chopped meat. It’s also a feature of the most thoughtful artists – Rembrandt certainly – and the greatest practitioners of nature morte to indicate their awareness of the self-defeating quality of painterly immortality. Hence, all those butterflies: ephemera, creatures who live for the day, just one day. Which is why I’m happy to find Hirst turning lepidopterist, and to call one of the sweetest such confections – yes, I suppose with an ironic grin – “Rapture” (2003). But if his mordantly sobering take on bliss is that it always presupposes its own swift disappearance, there have been moments lately when the self-cancelling nature of art’s beauty is offset by a surprising gesture of faith in its power of resurrection.

This is an edited version of a lecture delivered by Simon Schama as part of the Frieze Art Fair

For more coverage of Frieze, see FT Arts Extra

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