Horses have been used in art as a symbol of power for centuries. Perhaps one of the most talked-about examples of the past decades is Maurizio Cattelan horse sculptures series. The series comprises of taxidermied horses with their heads stuck on the wall or hanging from the ceiling.
Many critics, including audiences, took great umbrage on the installations, but it only serves as a boost for Cattelan in the global art market.
About Maurizio Cattelan
Maurizio Cattelan was born in September 1960 in Padua, Italy. Earlier in his life, he worked as a carpenter and would often create wooden sculptures. As an artist, Cattelan is perceived as humorous and was once described by curator Jonathan P. Binstock as “one of the greatest post-Duchampian artists and smartass, too.” He began making life-size wax sculptures in 1999, creating La Nona Ora.
Cattelan has often been compared to famous artists like Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons because he uses collaborators to create his artworks. But unlike those artists who have big studios and numerous assistants, Cattelan works from a small one-room studio in Greenwich Village.
The artist uses art to make fun of different systems of order. He usually uses themes and ideas from the past as well as other cultural sectors to drive his point home. Many of his works, such as his horses, are based on simple subvert or puns clichéd conditions by using animals in place of humans in sculptural tableaux.
The Ballad of Trotsky, 1996
This taxidermized horse was presented to the public during Cattelan’s first solo exhibition in New York. It shows a horse suspended in mid-air. The title references Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who was an influential figure in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union. However, thanks to opposing Stalin in the 1920s he had to flee to Mexico City where the Marxist theorist consequently was murdered by a devout communist.
Novecento (1900), 1997
Untitled (Inri), 2009
In another horse sculpture, the artist created a dead horse with the symbol INRI. That is an acronym from Latin meaning Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, which translates to English as “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” The symbol is also often used in art history, but what why was it used on a dead horse?
The sculpture may call to mind several scenes from Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, during which the soldiers repeat the phrase several times. It unknown whether the artist used the taxidermied horse to represent him, Christ, or both. The conclusion is, however, again, left up to the imagination of the viewer to decide.
Untitled, 2013, Kaputt
In his previous installations of horses, the artist concentrated on making single sculptures that appeared to evoke isolation and desperation. However, in the Horses, which is titled Kaputt, there are five horse sculptures to hang headless from the wall at the Guggenheim Museum. These sculptures elicited uproars calling for a petition to bar the artist from displaying the horses on the ground that it “extremely offensive and disgusting!”
In Untitled, five horses brought together all the sculptures the artist created in the past, and change the sense of loneliness portrayed by the single figurines into an orchestrated and intentional movement.
The horses appear to be startled by the viewers walking in or tried to escape their sad situation by jumping into the wall. Though, another association could be that the animals simply wants to see what is on the other side of the wall. Nobody knows why the horses are escaping, and this has made many viewers stop and reflect on what could have caused the herd to throw themselves on the wall headfast.
Two of the horses from the Untitled five horses are Cattelan’s proofs from his previous work Untitled, while the remaining three are from 2007 Untitled sculptures, on loan from different collections around the world. In earlier works, the horse cuts lonely figures in the exhibition, something that is opposite in the herd.
This work was first installed in the Kaputt exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland. The title was borrowed from the novel Kaputt Primavera authored by Curzio Malaparte. In the book, the author narrates the heartbreaking death of a thousand horses during World War II after jumping into Finland’s Lake Ladoga to escape the wildfire resulted from aerial bombardments. As the horses were crossing the lake, it unexpectedly froze over, tapping all the horses in place, their heads above the frozen water and eyes frozen open.
Cattelan was trying to create the view of the thousands of horses from below the frozen lake’s surface. Just like in the novel, the horses are preserved by the frozen water. Cattelan has used taxidermy to freeze the horses in space and time; thus, they are neither truly dead nor alive.
Cattelan’s Horse works were not received well by the audience. Many have gone to online discussion forums to air their frustrations towards the artist. One viewer rants: “I find it sadistic. It is very disturbing that it received enough attention to be sent around the net. What kind of world do we live in where people find entertainment from a horse with its head buried? Perhaps I should lighten up, or I have no appreciation for art? I went to the new modern art wing of the Chicago Art Institute when it opened a few weeks ago so I must like art. At the very best if I look with an open mind, the artist is saying, ‘some people are such idiots that animals hide from them in plain site but they don’t notice that animals are about to poop on them.”
Writing for the New York Times, Carol Vogel said this about Cattelan’s work: “Frequently morbidly fascinating, Cattelan’s humor sets his work above the visual pleasure one-liners.”
Cattelan’s works have performed excellently in the auction. The first of his taxidermied horses was made in 1996 and was titled The Ballad of Trotsky, which fetched a cool 2.1 million dollars in an auction in 2004, purchased by Bernard Arnault. His Untitled (2001) also fetched $7.9 million in 2010 at Sotheby’s auction, the highest price for any of the artist’s works.
When one observes the horse keenly, they can conclude that the herd jumped willingly into the wall. Perhaps this was an attempt to escape some form of danger, or with a desire to take their own lives.
The hanging horse body also conjures the term “horse’s ass” which is typically used to describe someone stupid or incompetent. This is an indictment of how Cattelan is perceived in the world of art.
Art critic Francesco Bonami writes: “The jump [of the single ‘untitled’ horse] is delusional and yet heroic. The five horses transform delusion into panic and individual effort into a crowd. It’s an exodus we’re witnessing, not a search for freedom. Like Malaparte’s horses in Finland that run away from the burning wood into the frozen lake, Cattelan’s horses do not seek freedom but survival.”
Is this art?
Many critics question whether the horses are artworks. Cattelan answered in an interviewed with Numero saying: “Of course, not all exhibitions can be artworks, just as not all artists can be curators, but it happens. Think Philip Parreno’s recent solo show at HangarBicocca: on paper, it was “only” an exhibition of older works, but the result was clearly a brand-new work made up of all the past pieces. One of those cases where the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.”
Whether or not you may like these works, they have ignited numerous conversations, something which most exhibitions fail to achieve. This success, combined with the million-dollar auction results, could be an indicator for more horse artworks to come from the Italian provocateur.