Monday, May 08, 2006

Horses in classical art exhbit opens in Bloomington, Indiana

Horses in classical art: "From the hippodrome to home, horses dominated important decorative arts, appearing on painted vases, furniture, jewelry and coinage and at the crossroads of human lives in wedding and funerary sculpture. Unlike much of the mundane equine art from this century and the last, this art shows how the ancient world held the horse as a dynamic comrade rather than a luxury consumer item or lottery-ticket surrogate. Achilles' prophetic chariot horse, Xanthus, for instance, could speak and weep. It is this intimate admiration of the horse as an equal that makes the period so compelling.

Elegant stallions used in hunting, war and chariot racing were revered by mortal and god alike and appear prominently in vase painting. Calinescu has divided the works into two categories: 'Horses in Life' and 'Horses in Myth.' And, because the exhibit is primarily composed of items meant for individual handling, the show has a strong immediacy.

A fine-boned horse captured in bronze for a chair-back invites you to complete the picture with a sprawling reveler. A well-bred mule wearing a celebratory garland forms a bronze saucepan handle, raising images of ancient haute cuisine. A charming clay horse and rider ? ancient Greek folk art, if you will ? carries boisterous black stripes over a white slip and likely was either a toy or votive offering. A spectacular gold finger ring with carved carnelian shows a rider on a magnificent stallion. It is from IU's celebrated Burton Y. Berry Collection. (Burton, an IU alumnus, was a career diplomat in the 1930s and '40s.)

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the exhibition is the wealth of vase paintings. That is part of the legacy of former art museum director Thomas Solley, said Calinescu. Much of the strength of the ancient material at Bloomington is due to his prescience, she said.

Among the treasures is a black-figure band cup by an unknown painter called The Bloomington Painter after this vessel. The work has a frieze of 69 delectably crisp figures of all ages, types and sexes with four chariots and 16 spirited stallions.

Two amphorae by The Phineus Painter are equally spectacular. One of the two-handled jars includes the image of a horse so swift it outruns a bird, a bit of exclamatory art that still carries a punch after 15 centuries. Nike drives to victory around the turning pole in a hippodrome with four divine stallions in a scene on a wine bucket. Hades drives Persephone to the underworld with a chariot team borrowed from his brother, Zeus, in a jug painting. In other works, Amazons, centaurs, satyrs, sphinxes, lions, griffins, panthers, dogs, sea nymphs, donkeys, birds and an intertwined wealth of real and mythic figures play background to the horse.

Another intriguing amphora is decorated with a plunging horse with a luxuriant, almost foaming mane. This and the presence of a dolphin on the vase suggest to Calinescu, who is an expert in vase-painting interpretation, that the images refer to Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes. His connection to the horse is primal, she said. Myth says Poseidon created the horse when he struck a rock with his trident, and it was Poseidon in the guise of a stallion who seduced Medusa to father Pegasus."