Unconventional Staging Strategies – Approaches to Conceptual and Art Historical Classification of Dana Meyer’s Horse Sculptures
When inquiring about the recurrence and significance of specific animal species in visual arts, the horse undoubtedly remains one of the most popular motifs to this day. This popularity is evident from the earliest animal depictions: prehistoric cave paintings, which alongside bears, rhinos, or big cats, also reveal some depictions of horses.1 The most well-known horse paintings in contemporary times, particularly within art-interested bourgeois circles, are attributed to the expressionist artist Franz Marc. In the early 20th century, he created numerous paintings dominated by blue horses.2 Marc and his fellow artist Wassily Kandinsky also elevated a blue-hued horse-rider depiction to a mythically charged symbol and a programmatic leitmotif of their artistic group, “Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider).3 However, the most recognizable and impactful form of equestrian representation lies in the medium of sculpture: the classic equestrian or ruler statue, whose origins trace back to ancient Greece. In this regard, the artistic popularity of the horse is reflected not least in its instrumentalized function as an iconographic motif of power.4
The affinity for the horse as both motif and subject is repeatedly evident in the sculptural work of contemporary artist Dana Meyer. In addition to sculptural horse busts like the work “Blinkers” (2018), the sculptor also engages with the representation of the horse in its entire bodily form. Two of these large-scale explorations are presented in this year’s exhibition – alongside pigs and a dog, which adhere to the same formal steel aesthetic and characteristic fabrication process as the artist’s – sculptures. “The Recumbent Horse” (2010) still features the use of reinforcing iron, which acts as a kind of skeleton for the horse’s body, and is particularly visible in the neck and hind leg areas. According to the artist, the use of this iron characterizes older sculptures.5 However, the more recent work “Man Carrying Horse” (2014) differs in a much more fundamental way from the aforementioned horse sculpture and simultaneously from the other animal sculptures exhibited in Jena. The title itself is revealing: the powerful body of the horse is carried by a similarly muscular human body characterized as male through the unmistakably rendered genitalia. On the contrary, the sight of a human head is absent; instead, a human head is effectively negated by the voluminous horse head, particularly from a frontal view of the sculpture. Even from other angles, a human head is absent, resulting in the impression of a hybrid creature. This impression is further reinforced by the similar material aesthetics of the human and animal forms.
Physically merging human-horse beings evoke associations with the centaurs of Greek mythology. In the 19th century, this mythological subject experienced multiple visual interpretations, particularly in the works of artist Arnold Böcklin, such as “Centaur in the Village Smithy”. The centaur figure is characterized by a human head and upper body, transitioning at the level of the navel into a dappled horse body. This portrayal, predominantly of a male and robust creature, is consistent not only in this painting but also in most artistic representations.6 This form of masculinity is also evident in Meyer’s sculpture. However, her sculpture does not entirely fit into this mythological narrative. While the horse, with its four partially angled legs, is depicted as a physically autonomous creature, in contrast, the fragmented human figure is not. Notably, Meyer’s sculptures do not conform to the conventional positions or natural postures of the horse.
How can we understand Dana Meyer’s unconventional staging strategies? To answer this question, it is worthwhile to briefly examine the societal role of the horse and the human-horse relationship, which have evolved over history. These changes are largely reflected in the epoch-specific artistic treatments of the horse motif.7 Essentially, two societal and cultural shifts have fundamentally influenced the role and function of the horse in relation to humans: its ancient domestication since around 3,000 BCE and the industrial technological leap in the Western modern era in the early 20th century. In the intervening period, the horse functioned as an essential part of human everyday experience: as a crucial means of transportation, a working and transport animal, and a military or war asset.8
Regarding the latter function, numerous artistic depictions can be cited that stage the fallen or even killed horse – even without a rider – in the context of warfare.9 Considering Meyer’s older horse sculpture – “The Recumbent Horse,” which lies on its back with its legs partially outstretched – its appearance could evoke the portrayal of a “fallen” animal in battle paintings. The sense of a non-vital animal is emphasized by the morbid material aesthetic of the sculpture. The interplay of individually assembled steel plates and reinforcement iron gives it a skeletal character, while the reddish-brown coloration of the rusted metal conjures associations with blood. Both aspects challenge the notion of a living or healthy animal. Given this portrayal of passivity due to incapacity, suffering, or injury, it would be tempting to speculate about a narrative connection between “The Recumbent Horse” and “Man Carrying Horse” – a story of a suffering or wounded horse that must be carried by a human.
However, Dana Meyer emphasizes that there is no specific intended narrative link between the two horse sculptures. Instead, she points out that “Man Carrying Horse” connects to the classical trope of the equestrian statue. This most prominent form of equestrian sculpture serves as a monumental monument in public spaces. Equestrian statues were primarily erected until the late 19th century to honor victorious achievements or represent specific heroes or rulers. Especially famous and influential for subsequent equestrian statues – particularly during the height of this sculptural type in the 17th century – is the ancient, originally gilded statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.10 The Roman emperor, with a triumphant gesture, sits centrally on a horse adorned with elaborate trappings. “Man Carrying Horse” departs from this tradition not only in its overtly reversed human-horse positioning but also in its artistic intention: the artist does not pursue monumental ambitions with her massive steel sculpture, nor does she portray a male victor or ruler – typically, equestrian statues are “gender-aesthetic demonstrations of male power.”11 Furthermore, the use of a less noble metal, characterized by heavy rusting, deviates from the valuable materials of classical equestrian monuments, typically made of gilded or polished bronze and marble.
Both the classical equestrian statue and Meyer’s “Man Carrying Horse” share – in addition to the masculinity of the protagonist, which can be read in Meyer’s sculpture as a subtle allusion to the traditionally male domain of equestrian statues, particularly through the explicit depiction of genitalia – the sculptural representation of power dynamics: In the equestrian statue, the ruler’s might over the people is staged and legitimized.12 Following Dana Meyer’s perspective, “Man Carrying Horse” symbolically reveals human power over the horse. The mastery of its inherent wildness, strength, and power13 is to be understood as a sign of human dominance over the animal, which particularly manifests in activities such as riding, training, and controlling the horse – activities that are nowadays often no longer existentially necessary.
Through her symbolic representation, the artist also connects to the prevailing contemporary image of the horse: a horse primarily situated in Western leisure and hobby culture, and according to Meyer’s understanding, possessing the status of a luxury commodity. This luxury commodity is elevated and prominently presented by the de-individualized human in “Man Carrying Horse.” A similar interpretation can be applied to “The Recumbent Horse”: there is no societal necessity for the animal to move and continue serving humans. It can rest undisturbed. The horizontal surface on which the animal lies functions, in this regard, as a sort of “presentation platter,” and Dana Meyer thus conspicuously presents “The Recumbent Horse” as an artistic “luxury item.” Following this interpretation, both “The Recumbent Horse” and “Man Carrying Horse” represent critical-ironic symbols or sculptural commentaries on the current (Western) societal landscape of affluence and consumerism.
In conclusion, the Meyer horse sculptures remind us of classical and traditionally established representation tropes or even explicitly engage with them; however, they are critically and ironically questioned and subjected to contemporary reevaluation.14 This allows the artist to open up ambiguous associative spaces, which disrupt the conventional viewer experience of the horse, captivating and intriguing the observer’s gaze while simultaneously causing various forms of irritation. Overall, Dana Meyer’s intention is not solely focused on the horse itself, but rather on using its sculptural representation to bring other concepts – in this case, primarily power dynamics – into perspective.
Yet, why is it precisely the motif of the horse that runs through the artist’s sculptural oeuvre multiple times? Its popularity is rooted not least in the unique formal-aesthetic qualities of the animal: both the strongly pronounced musculature and the dynamic locomotion of the horse serve as primary starting points for the artist’s sculptural engagement with the creature. In this sense, it is not surprising that the first animal sculpture Dana Meyer created most likely depicted a horse, as stated by the artist. Undoubtedly, it was these same qualities of the animal that fascinated numerous artists in both older and more recent art history; and to this day, they continue to result in the horse maintaining a multifaceted presence as a subject of artistic exploration.
1 The oldest known representations of animals come from caves in southern France (Lascaux) and Spain (Altamira). Their origin is dated around 30,000 BC. C.F. Ullrich, Jessica: Künste. Tiere und Bildende Kunst, in: Borgards, Roland (Ed.): Tiere. Kulturwissenschaftliches Handbuch, Stuttgart 2016, S. 195–215, hier: S. 196; Riese, Brigitte: Lexikon der Ikonografie. Religiöse und profane Motive, Stuttgart 2007, S. 325.
2 Examples include Marc’s Blue Horse I, (1911, Städtische Galerie Lenbachhaus, Munich) or The Tower of Blue Horses, (1913, former National Gallery, Berlin, confiscated by the Nazis in 1937 as part of the “Degenerate Art” campaign, lost since 1945).
3 Kandinsky, Wassily/ Marc, Franz (Ed.): Der Blaue Reiter, Originalausgabe 1912, Reprint München/ Zürich 1986.
4 C.f. Schumacher, Birgit: Pferde. Meisterwerke des Pferde- und Reiterbildes, Stuttgart/ Zürich 2000, S. 18–24, S. 113–127.
5 All statements of the artist mentioned in the text are based on personal conversations of the author with Dana Meyer on March 03, 2020.
6 Riese 2007, S. 228.
7 C.f. Schumacher 2000.
8 On the changing social role and function of the horse c.f. Schumacher 2000, S. 6–7, S. 233; Reckert, Annett (Ed.): Das Pferd in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, Ostfildern 2006, S. 8–10.
9 For example Giulio Romano and workshop, Konstantins Schlacht an der Milvischen Brücke, (at 1520–24, Sala di Constantino, Vatikan, Rom). fig. in: Schumacher 2000, S. 82–83.
10 To the classic equestrian statue c.f. Schumacher 2000, S. 18–24, S. 113–127, S. 240; Aurnhammer, Archim/ Von den Hoff, Ralf: Reiterstandbild, in: Asch, Ronald G., u.a. (Ed.): Compendium heroicum, Collaborative Research Center „Helden – Heroisierungen – Heroismen“, Freiburg 2020. https://www.compendium-heroicum.de/lemma/reiterstandbild/ ( Last call off on 10. April 2020).
11 Aurnhammer/ Von den Hoff 2020.
12 C.f. Schumacher, S. 114; Aurnhammer/ Von den Hoff 2020.
13 Dana Meyer understands the horse as a symbol of strength, power as well as grace and elegance.
14 Other contemporary artists deal with the classical topos of the equestrian statue in a critical and questioning manner; for example, Stephan Balkenhol with his REITER (1986-96) in patinated bronze. fig. in: Reckert 2006, S. 39.
About the author
curator Frommanscher Skulpturengarten Jena, projekt Prof, Dr. Verena Krieger chair for art history Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany)
Editor Puplikation „Animal Crossing“ of Jenaer Kunstvereins