Published  17/10/2006

The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art – book review

The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art – book review

Tamsin Pickeral. London: Merrell, 2006

The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art by Tamsin Pickeral is a gallop through art history from prehistoric times to the present, with the focus narrowed on the horse - a long-standing and yet surprisingly unmentioned muse of artists spanning centuries and continents, schools and movements. A creature of practicality and mythology alike, promising loyalty as well as escape, serenity and passion, domestic bliss and gallivanting into the wilderness, the horse indeed is a subject of promise. It is at one with nature and mankind alike and, in a sense, it is man's true travelling companion through every war, wandering and cantering play. No subject is quite so at home in paintings depicting the Old Testament, the Wild West or the First World War, except perhaps the human. In a touching manner, Pickeral shows the human spirit through the experiences of man's companion, the horse.

The first thought upon picking up the delightfully illustrated and diligently written book is to wonder why such a work has not been written so well before. It makes such sense to observe art and human transitions through the movements of the horse, like the ocean to mankind's ship and it is refreshing to dive underwater and understand the other elements of the situation.

In the tradition of parable and literature, such as Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises, Pickeral's book sheds light on the relationship between man and nature, and the place of a person within the abstract notions of speed, journey, prey and exploration. The horse is symbolic in that it is a natural being harnessed by man and, in a sense, a metaphor for man himself - a being whose emotions are harnessed by reason and yet drive the exhilarating gallop of life itself. The horse symbolises the harmony between man and nature, and the book delves into the pictoral representations and explorations of this idea and motif that have been present, if also understated, throughout art history. Divided into subgenres such as The Eastern Horse, The Primitive Horse, The Power Horse and The Real Horse, Tamsin Pickeral presents a thorough and diverse study of the horse in art, as well as its many tangents and implications, in an exciting and diligent manner - much like a great rider to a horse with a beautiful nature.

To use the horse as a guide through the often overwhelming chronology of art history is intelligent in itself and gives a compelling motion to the study of a wide range of artists and their works. There have been many books written that are pieced together with the thread of religion; for example, the crucifixion in art, or conversely, the threads of mythology. There are books that focus on pictures of beautiful women or dissolute prostitutes in order to find a cohesive motif to link artists and their movements; but it is original and very refreshing to read a book that focuses on the horse, an altogether purer subject, understated, elusive and giving a greater scope to the investigation of art. Like Horatio to Hamlet, the horse was always there in the background, and, when humanity corrupts itself and the bodies mount up, somehow the horse remains to continue the journey and walk on.

Like bass to guitar, horse to human is often less realised, and viewed in a painting as secondary to its owner; however, it is just as important in terms of composition and sensation. In an age becoming gradually less patriarchal, the wife is seen as often as the husband, the slave is equal to the master and animals have (almost) as many rights as the humans, it is fitting that there is a book detailing the horse's place in art. A product of a society where workers and women have the vote and models are more celebrated than designers (Kate Moss draws more attention that Alexander McQueen), The Horse by Pickeral is an interesting development in art criticism, and a welcome one. The horse surely deserves kudos (and a carrot) for carrying humanity through its wars and woes.

As well as being the latest star in a liberated world (perhaps the next book on the cards will be a biography of Nero's horse, who was made a senator in Ancient Rome), the horse is also a fascinating subject of mythology and pagan lore, and a means to connect imaginative art spanning centuries. A figure of promise, related to the unicorn after all, it embodies man's yearning for the metaphysical. Before space ships and cheap flights, the horse was the perceived transition between reality and fantasy - the creature who could transport man elsewhere. Epitomising travel, paintings of horses of primitive times captured the desire to escape, explore and move - ideas and realities we take for granted these days. The horse symbolises emotion, just as art captures it. The horse is, in a sense, a metaphor for art: harnessed, sometimes, both real and escapist, loyal, if also moody. It is, therefore, no surprise that so many artists have taken the horse as their muse. Even the Rolling Stones had a go with 'Wild Horses' - not detailed in this particular book but definitely an example of how the horse continues to carry the dreams of artists of diverse media and expression.

The horse is a deserving and fascinating subject, and this book has been skilfully put together, illustrated beautifully and written with originality and creativity, making for an exhilarating journey through the ages depicted in paint, stone and sculpture.

Christiana Spens

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