(1) SURVIVAL INSTINCT
“‘Did it ever occur to you,’ I said, ‘that the Swedish landscape is equine in character?’ Prince Eugene smiled and asked, ‘Do you know Carl Hill’s drawings of horses, Carl Hill’s hästar?’ And he added, ‘Carl Hill was mad; he thought trees were green horses.’ ‘Carl Hill,’ I replied, ‘painted horses as if they were landscapes…’” I came across this dialogue in Kaputt, a novel written by Curzio Malaparte. The characters engaged in this conversation are the author himself and Prince Eugene of Sweden. The first part of the novel is titled “The Horses” and it alone would be enough to gain an understanding of Maurizio Cattelan’s horses. In it, Malaparte writes about horses in a magical way, bringing to mind over and over again all the horses used by Cattelan in his work. In particular, the rotten mare in a pool of mud recalls Untitled (2009), Cattelan’s horse with a swollen belly pierced by a pole bearing a sign with the inscription „INRI.“ Or the horses trapped in the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga in Finland during World War II, with only their heads sticking out, their eyes frozen in terror. Malaparte tells of the frozen heads being used by soldiers as benches on which to smoke their cigarettes and pipes. And of the horrible stench of the rotten corpses when spring arrived, the ice melted and the bloated, dead horses started to float on the surface of the lake. It sounds gruesome and horrendous but actually Malaparte’s writing is very much like Cattelan’s visual language, located somewhere between the magical and the poetic, the tough and the lyri- cal. Prince Eugene, again, seems to describe it simply but perfectly: “La guerre même n’est qu’un rêve.” War itself is nothing but a dream. The work of Maurizio Cattelan is nothing but a dream—a disturbing dream, perhaps, but nevertheless a dream.
The title of this text is Kaputt Primavera. It refers both to Malaparte’s novel and to his description of spring on the shores of the Finnish lake and, oddly enough, to Botticelli’s Spring. There can be no two images that have less in common than the one of the frozen horses’ heads sticking out of the ice in the middle of a brutal war and Botticelli’s sugary, over-the-top, decorative, allegorical vision. Yet I feel that both converge perfectly into the five horses hanging headless from the wall at the Fondation Beyeler. Fear, despair, tragedy, and allegory are combined in Cattelan’s sensitivity, which has brought him a long way, from being sim- ply a donkey to feeling like a trapped horse. As I said, Malaparte’s novel could be enough for us to gain an understanding of Cattelan’s art. I could easily stop writing here. But instead, I will indulge in an unlikely competition with Malaparte and pave my own path to Cattelan’s five horses. It will be a personal chronology with very personal references, far removed from any scholarly dissertation on Cattelan’s art. For me to talk about Cattelan like a scholar would be an oxymoron. My story is not linear and it’s roughly divided into five short chapters, each of which discusses a work of art that I believe will bring us closer to understanding Cattelan’s parade of suspended horses. The five horses are somehow different from the individual horses that Cattelan presented in the past. The lonely horse is a kind of attempt to escape solitude, a feeling the artist is constantly fighting. The jump, the effort is delusional and yet heroic. The five horses transform delusion into panic, they escape in a stampede and the individual effort in a feverish 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.
(2) FIVE DEGREES OF HISTORY
Winter Sunset with a Rider and a Rearing Horse is a painting by Carl Fredrik Hill (1849–1911), the Swedish painter mentioned above. I do not know where this painting is and when the artist did it. However, the posture of the horse is all we need to know, and the sky becomes Cattelan’s wall: a wall that is the border between winter and spring, between death and life again. You can read into this as much as you wish, or nothing at all. Is it just a coincidence? But then, if art is simply a coincidence, why even bother? Maurizio Cattelan wishes to unsettle us and he’s succeeding, in his own way. The wall is also a border between the historical and the mundane, between the souvenir and the trophy, the memory and the anecdote. All these elements conspire along this obvious and yet invisible border. Cattelan erases the sunset, the rider is gone, only the rearing horses remain, beheaded, or maybe not. We are looking at the animals from under a frozen sheet of ice, waiting patiently for spring to come and free us. 1994. The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France is discovered to contain some of the earliest cave paintings in human history. One of the most famous paintings is of four horse heads. It is as though Cattelan is going backwards in time. 32,000 years backwards, looking for the heads of his horses. 1994. New York. Daniel Newburg Gallery. Warning! Enter at your own risk, Do not touch, Do not feed, No smoking, No photographs, No dogs, Thank you. This is the title of Cattelan’s first New York exhibition. A failure. According to him, he felt like a donkey since two previous projects had been rejected. He showed the donkey, the cousin of the horse. The five horses are maybe the completion of that long failure that began almost twenty years ago. The New York gallery was Cattelan’s cave. The first rock wall on which he bumped his head, where he would have liked to hide or bury his head. The donkey, not noble enough or not ready to be sacrificed under the wall of fear.
Venice, Saint Mark’s Cathedral. On its facade, the copies of four copper horses. The originals are protected inside the basilica. Four horses. Like those in Chauvet’s cave. It seems like one horse is always missing the count. Where is the fifth horse? Saint Mark’s horses arrived in 1204 after the Sack of Constantinople, before which, they had been stolen from Greece. Nobody knows for sure who the sculptor was, maybe Lysippos. In 1797, Napoleon took them and placed them on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. They returned to Venice 1815, after the Batt- le of Waterloo. The Venetian horses look agitated, they feel they are in the wrong place. Constantinople, Venice, Paris… They are not at home, they belong somewhere else, on a Greek island. Their original purpose was not to celebrate wars, imperial victories or defeats. Cattelan’s five horses share this feeling with those four but nobler horses. They belong somewhere else. Art uprooted never fulfills its scope. Cattelan’s work gives the impression of being somehow uprooted and, like Saint Mark’s horses, it gains strength from this condition, it gains life from this state of uneasiness. 1800–1803. Jacques-Louis David. Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. Napoleon may have been in the Alps with his white Arabian stallion in 1799, but the four horses of Saint Mark’s had crossed the Alps two years earlier. David made five versions of this painting. The power of its composition does not lie in the image of the First Consul and future emperor but in the balance of his horse, or its resistance to scale that rocky wall that is the Great Saint Bernard Pass. Napoleon is not retreating but proceeding in his conquest of Europe. What is Cattelan doing? Retreating or advancing? The horses in Chauvet’s cave, Saint Mark’s horses, Napoleon’s horse, and now Cattelan’s horse and horses. The journey leads through a complex panorama—one drawn by European civilization, on the one hand, by merging with a Paleolithic root and on the other by springing from Byzantium, or a place even deeper in Asia—and recalls Attila’s legendary horses. Where does all this lead or end, or start again and again?
Rome, 1969. Galleria l’Attico. Twelve live horses are entering the space. They will be the subject of Jannis Kounellis’s exhibition. The Surrealist poet André Breton once spoke about the idea of making something impossible possible, like the Tartars bringing their horses to drink at the fountains of Versailles. That’s what Kounellis is doing: making the im- possible possible. In a garage, history is crossing several borders at the same time. That’s where our story is approaching its conclusion. From the brutality of Malaparte’s Lake Ladoga and his dead, terrified horses to the glorious gesture of a parade of live horses entering an industrial space in Rome. From sheer devastation to sheer celebration. What is now left of all this if not the five horses of Cattelan, which are neither alive nor truly dead, but suspended in a state of wonder, crossing devastation, trespassing celebration, and ending nowhere. Looking for, seeking out another dimension, another space, another era far beyond anything we have yet imagined. In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s movie The Wages of Fear (1953), the character Mario, played by Yves Montand, and his critically wounded friend Jo (Charles Vanel) reminisce about a neighborhood they both know in Paris, near the rue Galande. A fence is mentioned. “I never knew what was behind it,” utters Jo, between two gasps of agony. “Nothing,” answers Mario. Seemingly unaware of Mario’s response, Jo asks again, “What was there behind that fence?” “Nothing, I’m telling you, nothing.” “There’s nothing,” the man repeats, dying with his eyes wide open, as if he were already seeing from the other side.
While standing under Cattelan’s horses, the viewer will have the same question to ask the poor animals before it is too late. “What do you see on the other side of that wall?” “Nothing,” or maybe: “Just a donkey.”