We recently travelled to Melbourne, in part to see The Horse exhibition at the NGV. This exhibition holds a vast array of objects and images, displayed across three rooms and delineated loosely by theme. Ultimately, it was an exhibition featuring pretty pictures of horses, with little to no critical content.
For me, the first section, on “Myth, legend, and miracle”, was the strongest, possibly because the theme is so clearly articulated in the works. While the thematic structure here was strong, this first room also incorporated the greatest diversity of material, from the tiniest Wedgwood vase….
…to a 20 metre depiction of the Duke of Wellington‘s funeral that ran the length of the room (for those interested Copenhagen predeceased the Duke, so the horse that is depicted in this scroll as ‘The Duke’s Horse’ is not Copenhagen).
It also included a range of religious depictions of the horse, from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to St George, and, outside the Christian canon, a variety of images from India, Iran, and Asia.
It was good to see the horse framed as an animal of symbolic power across a number of cultures and civilisations. My head is so set within the Australian context that it’s easy to forget that we are not the only ones who worship the horse!
Having said this, the exhibition also included the obligatory Drizabone and Akubra. It was at around this point that I felt the show lost some of its focus, and devolved into a sequence of separate items whose only unifying theme was the horse, which for me wasn’t enough to create cohesion.
However there was one highlight within this, and that was an artwork by Angelina Pwerl Ngal, which addressed the role that horses played in the dispossession of Australia’s first people. This is a significant topic and could have been addressed in greater detail, especially as the Aboriginal voice was notably absent from the section that dealt with humanity’s oldest myths and legends relating to the horse. This absence is in itself telling, and could have done with some more fleshing out.
The Australian context featured within the latter part of the exhibition, with a heavy focus on horse racing (not surprising, given one of the sponsors is Racing Victoria, and the exhibition coincides with the Spring Racing Carnival here in Melbourne). The Melbourne Cup believed to have once been won by Phar Lap is on display, as is this gem, which I have read of and written about so often that it was lovely to see it at last:
I was, however disappointed that “Phar Lap before the Chariot of the Sun” was not also on display! Speaking of Phar Lap, footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup is projected upon part of one wall, and you can see the horse himself thundering down the straight and then returning to the scales. Having written about Phar Lap being divorced from his horse-ness, this was actually a marvellous sight, and I watched the three-and-a-half-minute reel play through a couple of times, wanting to see it again and again.
Ultimately, this exhibition struck me as something of a filler, not too serious, and an easy way to fill the temporary galleries for a few months. I have no doubt that it is the tip of the iceberg as far as depictions of horses in the NGV collection goes, however it could have easily been strengthened by a more focused approach to the latter sections of the exhibition, and a greater emphasis on Australia beyond the world of horse racing.