Horses and the Heidelberg School

Tom Roberts is a renowned nineteenth-century Australian painter, part of the Australian impressionist movement (also known as the Heidelberg School). The National Gallery of Australia is currently staging an exhibition of his work, which many Australians would be very familiar with – think Bailed up, or Shearing the Rams.


Tom Roberts, Bailed Up (1895, 1927) Art Gallery of NSW

Roberts’ work, alongside other members of the Heidelberg school, has been influential in shaping an Australian national identity. However, it wasn’t just painters who were engaged in projecting a particular (white, Anglo, masculine) identity. You may recall a previous discussion on this blog about the Australian bush ballads, written during the same era that Roberts et al were painting. The fact is that both the artists and poets of this period have left a legacy that continues to define Australia’s identity over a hundred years later.

Art historian and comedian Hannah Gadsby believes that these artworks function as a cultural indicator of Australia’s obsession with masculinity, and argues that the figure of “the macho macho Australian man isn’t questioned enough.”[1]

Seeing the Tom Roberts exhibition I was struck by how frequently the horse features in his most iconic works, what the Gallery terms his “national narratives”. [2] Works that incorporate the horse include A Breakaway (1891), A Mountain Muster (1897-1920s), Bailed Up (1895, 1927) and In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895)


Tom Roberts, A Breakaway (1891), Art Gallery of South Australia (image copyright National Gallery of Australia)



Tom Roberts, In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895), National Gallery of Victoria

So while Australia’s most well-known and best-loved art-makers were constructing “works that are now embedded in the Australian psyche, as intended”, [3] our bards were doing the same, via poetry. In the works of ‘Banjo’ Paterson in particular, the horse is most visible via the figure of the stockman. Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, and The Dying Stockman to name but a few all idolise the figure of the stockman, to whom the horse is intrinsic.

The horse here is inherently linked to these constructions of a very masculine Australian identity. While there is no overt assertion that the horse belongs solely to a male-dominated world, the assumption, both in the poems of the bush balladists and the artworks produced by members of the Heidelberg School such as Roberts, is implicit.

This tacit acceptance of a very narrow and particular vision of Australia suffuses the NGA’s exhibition. Perhaps it’s my over-exposure to Roberts’ work through my PhD, or perhaps it’s my critical thinking at play, but I couldn’t warm to the exhibition.

However, an idle Google image search delivered a real gem in the below work by Anne Zahalka. Zahalka, by adding a long plait to the rider, immediately repositions the figure as female. The jolt this small addition delivers serves to highlight at least part of what is missing from these works, which have entered the Australian canon unquestioned. And that makes for a refreshing change.


Anne Zahalka, Untitled (1985), copyright remains with the artist



[1] Hannah Gadsby, Hannah Gadsby’s Oz Episode 2, Closer Productions 2014.

[2] Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, 4 December 2015 – 28 March 2016.

[3] ‘About’, Tom Roberts exhibition website, National Gallery of Australia. Accessed 16 February 2016



Another Horse exhibition

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.


The first room of the Horse exhibition, NGV

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….

Tiny Wedgwood vase, c. 1880

Tiny Wedgwood vase, c. 1880

…to a 20 metre depiction of the Duke of Wellingtons 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).

Depiction of the funeral procession of the Duke of Wellington, 1850s

Depiction of the funeral procession of the Duke of Wellington, 1850s

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.

"Kalki, the tenth incarnation or avatara of Vishnu", 1830s, Tamil

“Kalki, the tenth incarnation or avatara of Vishnu”, 1830s, Tamil

The seven-headed horse of the Sun God Surya, 19th century, India

Detail, showing the seven-headed horse of the Sun God Surya, 19th century, India

Albrecht Durer, "St George slaying the dragon," c. 1500s

Albrecht Durer’s depiction of St George slaying the dragon, c. 1500s

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!

Objects ranging froan Iranian cheekpiece c. 700 BCE (top left) to 20th century Mexican stirrups (below, left and right)

Objects ranging from an Iranian cheekpiece c. 700 BCE (top left) to 20th century Mexican stirrups (below, left and right)

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.

Drizabone and Akubra

Drizabone and Akubra

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.

Angelina Pwerl Ngal, "Whitefella killing blackfella", 1998

Angelina Pwerl Ngal, “Whitefella killing blackfella”, 1998


Detail from “Whitefella killing blackfella”

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:

Eric Thake, "Gallery Director, or, This Way To Phar Lap," 1954

Eric Thake, “Gallery Director, or, This Way To Phar Lap,” 1954

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.

All of the horse-pictures! Among them is footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, projected onto the wall.

All of the horse-pictures! Among them is footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, projected onto the wall.

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.

The horse as human

Steve Baker, author of the seminal text Picturing the Beast, claims that representations of animals are merely depictions of human beings in another form. This seems to be true, at least in the case in the horse sculptures of Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere.

I recently saw one of de Bruyckere’s pieces ‘in the flesh’ (so to speak), at the Art Gallery of South Australia.


Titled “We Are All Flesh” (2011-12), the label accompanying the work claims that the body of the horse is used ‘to ponder what it is to be human, to explore where the human condition is located.’

It was particularly interesting to stand by the sculpture and listen to the comments of passers-by: “That’s not art!” “How gross” “Wow!” While I didn’t hear anyone pondering the human condition, many many people stopped to photograph the work, so it seemed to have captured their interest in one way or another.


The sculpture seems to be two horses twisted together, though without any visible head and only five (!) hooves, it is hard to convince the mind of the second horse’s existence. According to the label again, the piece references Christian martyrs, but – perhaps because of my PhD topic – I just couldn’t get past the HORSENESS of it.

These works of De Bruyckere are created from casts of dead horses, made at the Ghent University Vet Clinic. The label mentions this process, though doesn’t specify that the horses are dead at the time. She then creates a mould, from which a cast is made as a mount for the horse skins, themselves obtained from a tannery.


While the works are generally regarded as a reference for humanity, a 2012 news article intimates that de Bruyckere does at least consider the beauty of the horse, in and of itself, in her work. “The body of the horse, it is close to us – but not too close. We like it, we see it everywhere. It is one of the best friends of human beings. And it has such a beauty and such a mind.”[1] Elsewhere, deBruyckere was quoted as saying of the horses, “Once the veterinary students are finished with these bodies they go to the incinerator; it’s as though I could not accept this, couldn’t let it happen, so I took them with me and made something beautiful from them. That is how people should view them, not as dead flesh or meat, but as something living.”[2]

De Bruyckere grew up in Ghent, where her father was a butcher, a fact that she acknowledges has influenced her work. While this may at first seem a vague connection, it is worth remembering that horse meat is part of the culinary tradition of Belgium, so it would have been sure to feature in the family butcher shop. This fact adds an additional layer of complexity to de Bruyckere’s work, which may not be easily comprehensible within a culture where the eating of horses is largely taboo. The linking of the horse with the human in that context, then, takes on a much more nuanced, and even difficult, meaning.

Where the horse skins come from also seems to matter to visitors, as evidenced by the issue being addressed by the label in the AGSA exhibit – in fact one journalist overheard a gallery attendant at de Bruckyere’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art 2012 show telling a visitor that the artists acquaints herself with the still-living horses, and waits for them to die of natural causes before collecting their hides.[3] Whether this fallacy was invented by the attendant or the gallery, and for what reasons, we are not told, but clearly, people consider more than just the human when looking at these works. 

Lots of people, better qualified than I, have written about de Bruyckere’s art. While it makes me ponder the equine condition more than the human one, she herself has said that “certainty gives you nothing to say” [4], and so perhaps that is okay.



[1] Andrew Stephens, “Works born of bloodied memory”, The Age, June 2 2012, 

[2] Alexandra Coghlan, “In the flesh”, The Monthly no. 80, July 2012.

[3] Christopher Allan, “Meat matters at Berlinde de Bruychere’s We Are All Flesh exhibition”, The Australian, June 23 2012,

[4] Andrew Stephens, “Works born of bloodied memory”, The Age, June 2 2012,


Phar Lap and the other Lindsay

ImagePhar Lap, by Daryl Lindsay 1932; Museum Victoria collection

I’m attending a conference later this year called ‘The Afterlives of Pastoral’, and my paper will be focusing on some of the things we have discussed previously on this blog, like the idealisation of the bush in the works of Banjo Patterson and others, and, more specifically, the role that the horse plays in these constructions.

When I came across the above print, part of the collection of Museum Victoria, I was struck by the overwhelmingly bucolic atmosphere pervading the work. If you didn’t recognise the name in the title, or the iconic big red horse himself, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it might have been painted a hundred years prior to its actual execution in 1932.

The artist was Daryl Lindsay, younger brother of Norman, and an artist in his own right. Prior to taking up art, Lindsay worked as a jackaroo in Queensland in the years preceeding WWI, and following his retirement he returned to the life of the bush, sketching the cattlemen of the Northern Territory in the 1960s. However unlike either of his artist brothers Lionel or Norman, Daryl did not work for the nationalistic publication the Bulletin.

In the above portrait Phar Lap was painted from life by Lindsay, though the print was not published until after Phar Lap’s death, when it appeared as a colour supplement in the Sporting Globe. The experience of painting Phar Lap was not to be Lindsay’s last with the horse. In 1941, Lindsay became the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, the same venue that housed the mounted hide of the venerated horse. During his Directorship, it seems Lindsay was frustrated by the popularity of the Phar Lap mount, which exceeded the popularity of the artworks themselves. This was amusingly depicted in 1954 by Eric Thake in his cartoon, “Gallery Director, or ‘This way to Phar Lap'”.


Gallery Director, or ‘This way to Phar lap’, by Eric Thake 1954; Museum Victoria collection

This print always brings a smile to my face; not only is it funny in it’s own right, but it’s amazing how things have not changed in the 60 years since it was created. People continue to worship at the ‘altar’ of Phar Lap, particularly embodied by the skin but also increasingly by the heart and skeleton too. Phar Lap’s heart is the most requested object at the National Museum of Australia, and acts as a testament to the ongoing popularity of the horse.

I wonder what Daryl Lindsay would have to say about that?