During the twentieth century, representational paintings of horses became increasingly the domain of "horse painters" such as Richard Stone Reeves (1919-2005). The New York City-born artist is, himself, representational of this genre of painting.
Growing up near Belmont Park, Reeves came by his love of horses and Thoroughbred horse racing early; he stayed close to home, studying fine arts at Syracuse University, and a portrait of 1947 Horse of the Year, Armed, made his name when it featured in Life Magazine that year. His favorite horses to paint included Buckpasser, Secretariat, and Affirmed. His thoroughness in painting Thoroughbreds and love of the world of racing got him named the greatest modern horse painter by no less an authority than Blood Horse Magazine.
Outside the world of horse painting, though, horses continue to exert a strong appeal as subject, symbol, or suggestion to modern artists and writers. The most famous example, perhaps, is Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937), the artist's enraged response to the Nazi bombing of Guernica, Spain. Already commissioned by the left-wing Spanish Republican government to paint a mural representing Spain at the 1937 World's Fair, Picasso revised this massive work, on which he'd already been at work for several years, to reflect the devastation of the unprovoked Nazi attack.
What had been a simple bullfighting scene became a gray fury of grieving mothers, dismembered soldiers, and, in the painting's center, a horse fallen by a javelin. (The horse's nose and upper teeth double as a human skull-shape.) The painting had a second life when, with the fall of the Republicans to the fascist Francisco Franco, it was sent to the United States to raise support for Spanish refugees fleeing what was to be a decades-long reign of terror. For much of the twentieth century (until a post-Franco Spain won it back in 1981), the painting hung at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it was the site of many Vietnam-era anti-war vigils. (In one of these, some idiot named Tony Shafrazi defaced the painting with red spray paint. Way to win support for your cause, smart guy.)
It now hangs in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. A replica is displayed near the entrance to the Security Council meeting room at the UN building in New York, where - I am not making this up - it was briefly covered up at the behest of the Bush Administration during a 2003 press conference to drum up support for the proposed venture in Iraq. The painting, it seems, has retained its potency.
At the end of Andrei Rublev (1966) - the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's massive biopic of the medieval Russian icon painter - the black-and-white picture bursts into color, and we see details from several of Rublev's most famous icons, followed by an enigmatic, perfectly framed image of four horses rolling in a river during rain. With its suggestion of freedom and abandon, this image is a fitting conclusion to a film regularly hailed by critics as one of the world's greatest - a gorgeous visual hymn to the freedoms of art, made in a culture so reactionary that the film wasn't released in the USSR until 1971. Though the entire film is image-rich, many viewers remember this equestrian coda the best.
Horses play a role - surprisingly enough - in the birth of American punk rock, too. Patti Smith, a poet and songwriter, was a New York City cult figure in the early 1970s, playing frequently to modish audiences at CBGBs, where she forged relationships with such innovative bands as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Richard Hell's Voidoids, and Television, whose legendary guitarist Tom Verlaine was her sometime boyfriend.
These bands had little in common except a commitment to stripped-down rock (influenced by the garage bands of the 1960s) played with a sort of post-Warhol self-consciousness. But Patti Smith's band were the first to cross over to a mainstream record company, releasing their first album, Horses, on Arista in 1975.
Over a churning background that often suggested both the Troggs's "Wild Thing" and the wild sax solos of John Coltrane, Smith sang and chanted her obscure, imagistic lyrics, strongly influenced by 19th-century French poetry and the Beats. The album in turn influenced REM, the Smiths, the Libertines, Bruce Springsteen, and many other artists, while paving the way for a gruff yet sensitive female presence in rock that would prove important to such disparate performers as Tori Amos, Sinead O'Connor and the Cranberries. No one who hears the album forgets Smith's urgency as she repeats the line, "Horses ... Horses ... Horses ..."
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