THE horse, as Italian sculptor Marino Marini (1901-1980) once put it, "is rapidly becoming a kind of lost myth." He was talking about "the ancient relationship between man and beast" and how "the horse has been replaced, in its economic and military functions, by the machine...."
But the aesthetic function of the theme of horse and rider has continued to have vitality. Marini, more than any other modern artist, has explored and exploited this. He was certainly aware of the theme's loss of significance but also of its past history in art as a symbol of heroism, regality, strength, and energy, as well as an emblem of fashionable elegance or pathos. In fact, his treatment of this subject depends on the past for its feeling and expression. It is not a modern theme.
Within the development of his own sculpture, he moved from comparative Naturalism to an increasingly broken and inchoate Expressionism, in which the balance of the relationship of riding man and ridden horse breaks down almost entirely. It is true to say, however, that even his earliest horses and riders had an unsettled or unsatisfactory partnership, even if they were rather motionless and quiescent. They were never striving, as, say in the horse paintings of Theodore Gericault, to match each other's vi gor and dynamism, never investing each other with grandeur.
"My own work," Marini wrote, "has followed a general trend in its evolution, from representing a horse as part of the fauna of the objective world to suggesting it as a visionary monster arisen from a subjective bestiary."
Increasingly, the horse and rider became for Marini a means of expressing his feelings of anxiety and tragedy. Paradoxically, therefore, the "lost myth" must have retained sufficient potency as a symbol of classical grace and stability for it to withstand the explosive dissolution to which he subjected it. So, while recognizing its diminishing meaning, he was actually adding to its mythological significance.
Early in the 20th century, a number of Italian artists, calling themselves "Futurists," had launched what amounted to an assault on the traditional imagery of art (which included the horse), celebrating instead, with anarchic gusto, the advent of the machine. This attack on the conventional past was carried out with exuberance and little sense of the tragic. Indeed, it was a kind of heroic stance, if somewhat destructive.
But in Marini's art, reaching its maturity much later in the century, the disappearance of the past is a matter of regret or even despair. It is humanity becoming separated from nature. As art critic and historian Sam Hunter writes in a new book on the artist, Marini's "evolution from the heroic to the tragic ... began around 1945, at the close of the war...." It was, certainly, part of a wider Angst that gripped the art world in the aftermath of the war - its most obvious cause being the destructive pot ential of the atom bomb and the consequent stalemate between world powers known as the Cold War. Sculptors in particular seem to have felt this anxiety in their work.
In Marini's case, it became an absorbing passion. The reactive bonhomie of the 1960s and that period's lightly satirical ditching of the gloom of the post-war period was not for him. While new forms of sculpture were surfacing that sometimes seemed like wellsprings of confidence rather than accumulations of despair, Marini continued to pursue what must have seemed a lonely path. Although himself a sociable, open-hearted character, he believed his art had to express a deep disquiet. It had never been part
of some trend or fashion; it was always personal, unlike anyone else's. His dialogue was between past and present - the past he was most engaged with being Etruscan and Roman.
In Hunter's book about Marini - "Marino Marini: The Sculpture" (photographs by David Finn) - the sculptor's strong interest in the past is made clear. He is quoted as saying: "I like going to the source of things. I am interested in a civilization at its beginning. I have always looked for the part that was the kernel of a civilization, for example the Etruscans."
Etruscan sculpture was the most ancient art belonging to the northern part of Italy where Marini was born, and its rediscovery was (he wrote) "something of great importance in local life" during the first 50 years of his life. He was also much drawn to the archaic period of ancient Greek sculpture that was more primitive and less refined than the later period, but he still found Greek art "too serene." In Etruscan art he noted "some human quality" absent from Greek art. Marini, for all his reduction of h umans (and horses) to depersonalized forms is still capable of a touching tenderness - a "human quality." His work can be unexpectedly poignant.
There is another factor that also contributes to this poignancy. Sam Hunter's text points to this, and many of David Finn's texturally sensitive photographs make the point too: There is something fossil-like about many of Marini's sculptures. It's as if they are "remains." His small bronze of a boxer might have been unearthed - in a wonderful state of preservation - from some ancient tomb. His most extreme and roughly shaped horses and riders are like something left over after a mass destruction.
"If the whole earth is destroyed in our atomic age," Marini said, "I feel that the human forms which may survive as mere fossils will have become sculptures similar to mine."
But again it was to the past, rather than the feared, imaginary future, that the sculptor turned for inspiration.
"If you really want to find the sources of my present style in antiquity, I must confess that you will find them in the remains of the life of the past rather than in those of its art," he said in the late 1950s. "The fossilized corpses that have been unearthed at Pompeii have fascinated me far more than the Laocoon group at the Vatican."
In this, Marini belongs firmly to the 20th century. The Laocoon was viewed as an epitome of classical sculpture in earlier centuries, a symbol of struggle against impossible odds, certainly, but an image of heroism all the same. Marini's art concerns itself with no such Baroque strength of purpose or extravagant contortion of design, but still it has a sense of pity and pathos.
The Pompeian remains of figures do have a particular emotiveness, because they seem to be living moments so instantly stilled, without warning or preparation, by the smothering descent of lava from Vesuvius. Oddly, they have the air of extraordinary survival. Marini's sculpture, though intent on self-destruction, also contains some such redeeming quality. Its vitality appears strangely irrepressible.