19 May 2022

"Je choque donc j'existe", Andre Serrano vs Verrochio




 



"See, then, that bronze equestrian statue. The cruel ruler has kept the bit in his mouth for centuries. Unbridle him for a minute if you please, and wash his mouth with water."
Thomas De Quincey, British, 19 century writer

Compare these images above with the ones below of that wonderful piece by Marino Marini at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice. It is titled L'Angelo della Citta created in 1948. A small anecdotal surprise is that the erect phallus was cast separately so that it could be screwed on and off and used with discretion. Now here is a discreet artist! He was thoughtful enough to not want to cause offence to others who might not appreciate it. This was Italy in the middle of the 20th century after all, when nuns scurried around everywhere in public. And to be honest, I don't remember seeing this poignant detail on the piece back in the early 1970's when I first saw it overlooking the Grand Canal at the Foundation. But then, those were different days because now it seems so unlike our world of Contemporary Art where  few artists would ever consider such a thing, because to shock is to affirm one's artistic right. "Je choque donc j'existe." 

I am thinking of Andre Serrano's Piss Christ, a work made to shock and perhaps insult, but also to make headlines, and lots of money.




But the statue at the top, which I equally adore, is the magnificent one created by Andrea Verrochio which sits in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo on the other side of Venice. Its massive stone plinth is eight meters high, twice that of the rider and horse. Both this warrior and his horse exude a courageous and unrepentant power. It has always fascinated me. My father took me to see it when I was four years old when we visited one summer as a family unit in 1956. It made a huge impression upon me and somewhere there exists a Kodak photo of the two of us in front of it. 

On a light note entirely, is Donatello's statue of Gattamelata (Erasmo da Narni) made a dozen years earlier and which portrays a different side of the warrior as leader. This was the first Renaissance equestrian statue, one that revealed the warrior as an individual befitting the humanist tide of thinking which swept  through 15th century Italy. 








And here (below) is an earlier equestrian statue from the 13th century in the Bamberg cathedral of Germany. It resides inside the cathedral hall atop a far more modest stone plinth and casually dwarfed by the grandeur of its surroundings so unlike the two statues above which command the empty space encircling them both. This one is delicate, and looking vaguely lost, it is paused, perhaps in a thought of reverie, yet in remarkable contrast to the two equestrian statues above. 


It's a beautiful work and one day I would love to go see it. The rider, unknown apparently, but maybe the emperor Henry II, is unarmed and stationary unlike the Verrochio which feels almost caught in a video still of motion. I really love this piece, gentle, musing and contemplative. The horse is carved out of a stylised 13th century but much like my favorite painting in the world, The Battle of San Romano painted 100 years later in 1432 
by Paolo Uccello at the start of the Renaissance. He made three versions, one is in Paris, the other in Florence, but this one below I love the most at the National Gallery in London. The humanity rendered in this figure and horse just kills me. 






And lastly here is an equestrian work from the British Museum but I cannot find any information on it. I took the photo in the Grand Court a few years back. Unfortunately, they don't have a search engine on their web site to find it but it feels like a Roman copy from the Greeks. They were adept at copies but their thirst for hyper-realism always seems to give them away. In this case the horse feels certainly better than the rider somehow. And look how much larger is the rider than the horse in this version from Rome! It's an abstraction, of course, but he is gigantic just like the way I imagine that Romans saw themselves. Compare this to the one from Bamberg where I see a rider somewhat diminutive, as if in deference to the gentle horse.
 


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