Galloping – Beverly Barkat, Rothschild Fine Art. Curator: Dr. Doron J. Lurie
Despite appearances at first glance, Beverly Barkat does not paint horses. Beverly depicts energy, as well as movement and momentum. For her, the horses are a classic point of departure, which in the history of painting – particularly the figurative kind – is used in processes of investigation which test fundamental questions of painting. At the center of these questions More stand courses of observation: how the eye takes in information, how the hand translates it into drawing and the transformative expression that operates in the tension between reality and repeated attempts to represent it through the painted image. This is transformation from three to two dimensions, from movement to static drawing, from the natural texture of the smooth or rough surface of the paper, cardboard, or canvas support. The repetition accentuates the image’s elusiveness, how difficult it is to capture, the nature of painting in general and the deceptive illusion upon which it is founded.
Important basic information: the horse is an animal that belongs to the equine family – a family comprised of just three species (get ready for a surprise!): horses, donkeys and zebras. Horses are creatures in danger of extinction. Although in the beginning of the nineteenth century, futurists predicted that the greatest problem of the twentieth century would be clearing all the piles of horse manure from the city streets, they did not foresee that the invention of the train, and of the automobile afterwards, would significantly, even drastically, reduce the human race’s need for horses as a means of transportation and shipping. In the history of war up until the Renaissance, heavily armored weapon-bearing riders, on horseback, were the most intimidating weapon on the battlefield. Aristocratic family members have always ridden horses, and this practice is considered a ‘status symbol’. As it turns out, there are no true aristocrats among us, so we have not been honored even with this privilege. A true leader would rule first and foremost from his horse, thus the expression: ‘to hold the reigns of power’. For the young people and sports lovers among us, here is a reminder: ‘Mustang’ is not an American sports car, but chiefly a free-roaming horse that lives in the Western United States.
The horse became a kind of cultural icon long ago. It took time for us humans to domesticate the horse, but over the years we have developed a dependency on the animal: in agriculture, transportation, for combat purposes, hunting and even discovery voyages. All these activities guaranteed that the horse would adopt a suitable place in art history as well. For example, the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a work of embroidery from 1077, provides a good depiction of the horse’s role in the Norman conquest of England, under the command of the king William the Conqueror.
Barkat’s artistic investigations act in inherent reference to previous representations in art history, and therefore position the starting point of her work in the infinite observation of nature, particularly when staying at the horse farm in Moshav Tel Adashim. The body of works presented before you was created, primarily, during the last year, and it binds the direct gaze at the living horse together with its previous representations in art. The repetitive focus enables the liberation of the charged image and allows the gaze (this time our gaze, as viewers) to concentrate on various experiments with the language and the investigative, mutable painterly temperament. This temperament strives to experiment with near and far expanses, while exposing the mobile dynamic of the draftswoman’s hand, the rhythm of shapes, brushstrokes, and movement in general.
In her investigations and observations, Beverly Barkat often directs her gaze back in time to ancient times, and in two cases - ‘The Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal King of Assyria’ and ‘Horses of San Marco’ in Venice – she sees them not just as iconic images, but also as basic allegories for the representation of the horse in art history.
Lion hunting is a practice that in Mesopotamia was reserved for royals, and kings participating in hunts were frequently presented in artworks. The king would shoot his arrows at the lion, and if they did not manage to stop it and the wounded, angry lion still threatened to pounce on the king, the hunters at his side would use their spears to complete the job. In events like these, the king was required to demonstrate bravery and calm. The horses in the relief, in contrast, appear terrified, if not hysterical, since no one can guarantee to them that the king and his servants will indeed succeed in halting the wild animals that have just been released from their cages, especially for this amusement. This dramatic story pits the bestial forces of the lion, king of the jungle, against the royal horses, and charges the image, in its unique Assyrian style, with elegant beauty. However, it exposes cruelty and vulnerability – an allegory for the forces that surround the monarch and his rule.
‘The Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal’ is a famous group of Assyrian reliefs which were displayed on the walls of the North Palace in the city of Nineveh (‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me’ Jonah 1:2, King James Version), and which are currently on display in the British Museum in London. The reliefs, which are regarded as ‘the supreme masterpieces of Assyrian art’, were created in 635 – 645 BC, during the kingdom’s final period, about just 25 years before it disbanded. The reliefs were discovered and excavated in the mid-nineteenth century by British archaeologists, and therefore most of them were sent immediately to the British Museum. Ashurbanipal was the last great Assyrian king, and after his rule the empire declined until it disbanded in 612 BC, and its capital Nineveh was looted and burned. However, for us, as members of the Jewish people, it is somewhat difficult to mourn the dissolution of the Assyrian kingdom – since it was the Assyrians who conquered the Kingdom of Israel and exiled the ten tribes, which have not been found to this very day.
Beverly Barkat’s painting, executed in a limited, monochromatic range, is slightly reminiscent of the world of illusion familiar in French trompe l’oeil painting, since from distanced observation one cannot ascertain whether this is a real, nearly sculptural, relief, or just an illusion of a relief (and indeed, truthfully this is only an illusion).
‘The Horses of Saint Mark’ (San Marco) are bronze sculptures of a quadriga (four horses), created in the Ancient period in either Greece or Rome. Either way, they are apparently the handiwork of Lysippos, a Greek sculptor from the fourth century BC. The sculptures were cast at high temperatures and coated in gold, whose sheen has dulled over the years. One might say that what these four horses have gone through over the past two-thousand years is a good reflection of the power struggles and wars that the human race endured (and continues to endure). The sculptures were first placed in the Stadium of Domitian in Rome (where the Piazza Navona presently sits). Rome was attacked and weakened, and in the eighth century AD the sculptures were looted by the Byzantine Empire, which showcased them at the top of the Hippodrome Gate in Constantinople (Istanbul today). The four horses stood above the gate until 1204, when the Venetian Republic’s forces conquered Constantinople in the fourth crusade. The Doge sent the horses to Venice, where they were placed on a balcony on the façade of St. Mark’s Basilica in 1254. In 1797, after conquering Venice, Napoleon Bonaparte sent the horses to Paris, where they were placed atop the arch in the Place du Carrousel adjacent to the Louvre Palace. Naturally, the Venetians protested this adamantly, and it is quite possible that Napoleon answered by quoting the Jewish sages: ‘The one who steals a stolen article from a thief does not pay double’ (Mishna Baba Kamma 7:1). Either way, in 1815, following Napoleon’s absolute last defeat in the Battle of Waterloo, the horses were returned to Venice and restored to the church façade, while the French were forced to make do with a replica they quickly placed atop the Carrousel. In the 1980s, due to heavy pollution in the city of Venice, the original horses were removed and relocated inside the Basilica, and here too, a faithful replica of the sculptures was placed on the church’s façade. The noble movement of the horses’ legs, as well as their ‘nearly human’ heads, are what attracted Beverly Barkat’s attention, and elicited her desire to take on depicting their movement – not necessarily the political upheavals they underwent.
Many artists have depicted riders on horseback (Donatello, Verrocchio, Leonardo, Dürer, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Jacques-Louis David and more). The point of departure for most of them was a Classical sculpture from the second century AD, which miraculously (or mistakenly) evaded destruction by the Christians who took control of Rome, even though it was pagan: ‘The Equestrian Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius’, currently on display in the Campidoglio Museum in Rome. We are lucky those Christians erroneously thought it was a sculpture of the first Christian Caesar, Constantine. In all these artworks, the horse accorded its rider a modicum of control, confidence and nobility.
Beverly Barkat is not interested in horse riders but rather movement, energy, beauty, intensity, and unconfined freedom, which she investigates while demonstrating an anatomical understanding of the horse’s structure as well as impressive drawing and painting abilities. Barkat chose to draw the horses in charcoal on the most inexpensive material available – newspaper. But this is not just any newspaper, it is the New York Times, which at the time published a very flattering article about her and her previous project: ‘Earth Poetica’. Barkat’s selection of ‘The Horses of Saint Mark’ represents not just unstable governmental symbolism (a topic we all know too well), rather also an unending chain of victories and defeats, reflected in the secondary use of the locations where these horses were placed, and their appropriation from generation to generation. Thus, naturally, the pages of history are written through material cultural assets.
Many Renaissance and Baroque artists were adept at painting or sculpting horses: Donatello, Verrocchio, and even Leonardo tackled the theme in sculpture (as well as Edgar Degas later on), and painters such as Paolo Uccello, Benozzo Gozzoli, Titian, Dürer, Rubens, Van Dyck, Gericault, Delacroix and others painted horses well. During these periods, horses were also incorporated in Persian and Mughal miniature paintings. British Academic painter George Stubbs (1724-1806) should also be added to this list. He was unofficially known as “Mr. Stubbs the Horse Painter” in eighteenth-century England.
Viewing the series of colorful small-scale (oil paint) études Barkat has created may indeed bring to mind the paintings of Stubbs. His horses are depicted again and again in the heart of nature, yet they always express infinite, elegant beauty. The domesticated horses, groomed with great love, awarded their owners immediate compensation for their efforts: These horses frequently won races and additional competitions, such as jumping and the like, which the English aristocracy adored so much. Stubbs, a masterful craftsman, marked the revered status of these horses in English high culture, while accentuating their importance as a sought-after status symbol. Beverly paints her horses in numerous, interesting positions: galloping, waving their fabulous tails up high, and one even lies on the ground so it can scratch its back.
An interesting detail about George Stubbs brings this exhibition full circle: One of the British painter’s preferred themes was ‘lion attacking horse’. In these pictures, Stubbs reached the pinnacle of his virtuosity depicting movement, drama and tragedy alike, with respect to the horses’ lives in nature. And here, in the ancient Assyrian relief we cited, ‘The Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal’ two horses appear, frightened to death of the lions chasing them – with one difference: The Assyrian horses know very well that they will not be able to run for their lives, because they are harnessed to the royal chariot where the king, whose life’s pleasure is lion-hunting, stands.
Another surprising aspect appears in a book by the renowned English author Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, published in 1726. In the book’s fourth, and perhaps least well-known chapter, Swift sends Gulliver to the land of intelligent horses, under the title: ‘A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms’. This utopian land is managed by horses characterized by rational, noble behavior, through mutual respect, peace and fraternity, yet devoid of emotional life and aloof. Swift artfully sketches the social codes among the upper classes in England of his day, in a satirical image which intertwines criticism and admiration – all through the allegorical figure of the horse.
An artist who might be somewhat less familiar to Israeli audiences, yet who Beverly Barkat greatly admires, is nineteenth-century painter and sculptor Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899), a Frenchwoman of Jewish ancestry who serves as a source of inspiration for Beverly. The sweeping excellence of Bonheur’s massive picture ‘The Horse Fair’, on display in New York, left Beverly breathless.
One can imagine a number of ways an artist can research a work they admire: They can look at it for a long time to decipher its secrets, or try to copy it, thereby uncovering its mysteries. Beverly has chosen a third, more original way. Naturally, Bonheur prepared quite a few sketches ‘from life’ for the large picture, and some of these drawings are in our hands. But did Rosa also create a sketch, or a smaller monochrome (in French: ‘grisaille’) oil paint sketch in which the artist addresses the composition and games of light and shadow, but does not delve into details of color? This technique served painters for long periods – Rubens and Tiepolo, to name just two. Today, there is great interest precisely in these sketches, which reveal the master artist’s direct, authentic touch on the small canvas or wood panel, without the involvement of assistants or studio apprentices, who took part in the production and enlargement of the finished painting.
Since we do not know whether Rosa Bonheur prepared such a sketch, Beverly decided to invent it – thereby endeavoring to face the same immense challenge Bonheur confronted successfully. Beverly created the desired ‘sketch’ in the dimensions 90 x 180 cm, allowing herself to use swifter, freer and less precise brushstrokes, as accepted in sketches of this type. This work by Barkat not only underlines Rosa’s superb painting abilities, but also does historical justice with the relatively forgotten figure of this unique painter.
Why did Rosa Bonheur disappear from collective memory? The answer may sound banal. We are accustomed to cataloging art history according to the streams that were deemed, retroactively, the most important and dominant in a particular period. Thus, when history came to judge art history in France during the second half of the nineteenth century, the most highly esteemed streams were naturally considered to be impressionism and post-impressionism, followed by pointillism and symbolism. Thus, hardly any room was left for realists of Rosa’s type, since they were not sufficiently ‘revolutionary’ and innovative – and sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world). And what glory of the world this was: Rosa Bonheur’s fame overshadowed that of men of her generation, and she made a name for herself as an unmatched painter of animals during her time, also linked to the development of landscape painting and the tradition of realist painting.
Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, the oldest of four children who were all trained as painters. It was her father, painter Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, who taught and influenced her. He arrived in France from Eastern Europe, and as the story goes his Jewish name was ‘Mazeltof’ (mazel tov), and therefore he translated his family name to ‘Bonheur’ (a name with the same meaning in French). Her father was connected to a political group that called for equality between men and women, and his links to this radical group contributed to his daughter Rosa’s liberal world view and defiant personality. She dressed like a man (in trousers!), wore a man’s hairstyle and smoked cigars. Rosa treated the world of nature and animals with respect, she had many animals, among them horses…of course.
Bonheur’s love for animals translated into their depiction in painting. She, who failed in her studies because of difficulty reading (apparently due to dyslexia), and was dismissed from several schools, began studying painting with her father. She never studied in a school of painting – which was not permitted to women in her time – but she developed her talent by copying works by the masters in the Louvre, and these sold quickly. In 1842, the Bonheur family settled in Paris, in an area near fields and farms, where she began painting from nature. Rosa often visited equestrian fairs and slaughterhouses in Paris in order to comprehend the physiognomy of various animals, and at the early age of 23 she exhibited 18 of her works at the Paris Salon. Upon her father’s death, she took over the management of the drawing school for girls he had founded and decided to open its doors to women who were interested in learning the art of painting. She also founded her own painting workshop with her lifelong companion, Nathalie Micas, and sold her works in France and abroad. The Empress Eugénie, Napolean’s third wife, granted her the French Legion of Honor decoration in 1865.
The pinnacle of Bonheur’s oeuvre was the painting ‘The Horse Fair’ (240 x 480 cm), currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. As unbelievable as it may sound, women were banned from entering the horse fair in Paris at the time. Luckily for Rosa, her somewhat masculine appearance (trousers, boots, man’s jacket, short hair and hat) did not arouse suspicion and she wandered freely through the clouds of dust, sketching the galloping horses in pencil or charcoal in a sketchbook. ‘The Horse Fair’ made Bonheur’s name throughout the world, when a gallerist from the Belgian city Ghent purchased the painting and convinced Rosa to travel to England and the United States. This gallerist succeeded in selling the large painting to an American millionaire who donated it to the museum. After the death of her partner, Nathalie, a relationship developed between Rosa and a young American named Anna Klumpke, an artist from California, who was Rosa’s partner until her death. Bonheur died at the age of 77 and was buried in Paris alongside her previous partner, Nathalie, and when Anna Klumpke, her second partner, died a few years later, she joined the couple’s grave.
One of the paintings in the present exhibition is a horse named ‘Steve-Alia’ which is living and kicking here, among us, in a Galilean village. This is an especially noble Arabian horse, as demonstrated by its beauty, its upright, attentive ears and even its intelligent glance. This horse seems conscious of its status as a kind of ‘prince’ – the offspring of noble animals brought from Morocco to England 200 years ago, used to enhance the breed of the English horses, which were inferior to the Arabian horses. Beverly painted the foliage behind ‘Steve’ in a less focused manner - intensifying the painting’s sense of depth.
One of the surprises in Beverly Barkat’s exhibition is the horse relief. Beverly, who throughout the years has tried her hand at many different artistic techniques such as ceramics, glassblowing and more, challenges herself this time with relief sculpture. Relief is a type of art form which stands between painting and sculpture: firstly, it usually is not colorful like painting; secondly, it is affixed to the support, the background panel; and thirdly it is not completely three-dimensional like sculpture. The meaning of all this is that creating the illusion of horses protruding outwards and galloping forwards in a relief is a major challenge. And Barkat meets this challenge well. In relief, natural games of light and shadow are an important part of our understanding of the work and the enjoyment we derive from observing it. All of these indeed occur in Barkat’s horse relief.
There is no lack of sources of inspiration, as usual. A ‘quadriga’ is a chariot drawn by four horses. As early as the sixth century BC such a quadriga was depicted in a Greek bronze relief, as well as in paintings on Greek vases. Later, the practice continued in Ancient Rome (might we mention the chariot race in the film Ben-Hur…). In the twentieth century the quadriga returned again, somewhat surprisingly: In 1912 the British sculptor Adrian Jones created a giant bronze sculpture depicting four horses leading a chariot, with the Goddess of Peace standing upright inside. The sculpture was placed in an elevated position atop the ‘Wellington Arch’ in ‘Hyde Park Corner’ in London. If previously we had the four golden bronze horses of San Marco in Venice, created in ancient times and which appear relatively static, here we have arrived at the ‘Wellington Arch’.
It would seem the sources of inspiration from which Beverly Barkat could take her horses are numerous and diverse. Yet, Beverly does not ‘appropriate’ these works, she merely ‘corresponds’ with them – certainly an acceptable, legitimate artistic practice in our day.
Beverly also likes to crop objects in a relatively surprising way, such that sometimes the horses’ heads are cut off in the middle, and precisely their eyes are located outside of the picture. Thus, emphasis is placed on their kicking legs, to the point that sometimes if one stands close to the picture, they might feel a bit threatened by the hooves galloping in their direction. Cropping entered European art primarily during the second half of the nineteenth century, due to two sources of influence. The first was Japanese prints, which arrived in Europe and in which, for example, one might see a close-up of a tree with branches cut-off on all sides by the picture frame (Van Gogh copied such a Japanese picture). The second source was the art of photography. People noticed that sometimes just part of an object that passed in the background when the photo was taken (such as half of a horse) remained in the margins of the picture. Although this cropping was considered ‘haphazard’ because it was unintentional, it captured the eyes of some artists, and it seems that Barkat continues this great tradition.
Following this overview, several questions remain, and it would seem the artist can best explain them in her own words.
Doron: Beverly, why horses?
Beverly: The horses are simply beautiful. I was attracted to their build, their character, their movement. I found in them power and strength, softness, delicateness, an ability to accelerate – all these qualities in a single animal. The subject is fascinating, following the rhythm and even the music of a galloping horse, the vibration generated in the air around it. I wanted to try to enter the physicality of the horse, to try to sense what the horse itself feels.
Doron: Tell us a bit about the working process you went through.
Beverly: First, I invited you into my studio, as the curator accompanying the exhibition. We were strangers at the beginning of the process. Over time, we got to know each other, which was not that simple. We began to build mutual trust and started to understand each other. I felt two things simultaneously: getting used to exposure, and an openness to devote myself completely, both were not easy. A good bond formed in our working relation. Each time you proposed a new direction, I needed to translate your intentions to my vision and practice. The more confident I became – the more I felt I could devote myself and receive from you and your world. It became clear that we are both very different from one another in personality as well as artistic philosophy, and it is interesting that precisely against this background, the cooperation blossomed between us. It seems you were ‘sent’ to expand my comfort zone, and I believe that cracks started to form in your comfort zone as well.
Doron: In your opinion, is it possible to talk about a ‘process of liberation’ you experienced?
Beverly: I prefer to call it ‘active meditation’. My head teaches my body everything it needs to learn about the painting’s direction at its research stage. In the next stage, the body leads the action, not the head. My body begins to express itself through painting. Now, when I reach the practical stage of painting – I feel more confident, and that enables complete freedom. Now I feel I have reached a state where I don’t need to actually look at a horse and investigate it anymore, I have already internalized it, it is already within me, so there is room for a more emotional approach, on my part, within the creation.
Doron: You are certainly aware that some artists have searched for different ways to liberate themselves from too much knowledge and intellectualism, which they believed only hindered them?
Beverly: Of course, I know, but I do not need those kinds of unnatural tools. After years of practice and hard work every day, it comes naturally to me. In order to feel the horses, I travel to the horse farm, interact with them, smell them, sense them, and then I disconnect and transfer these feelings and emotions to the canvas. All this happens after my head is almost ready to explode from so much information. I approach the canvas – and enter a liberated working process. It is a long process, but absolutely satisfying. A kind of addiction – but not in the negative way. This is the place to mention that I am not free of fears, doubts, and the outside world. During the working process I disconnect from all these ruminations. The surprises flow, and the knowledge I have acquired on the topic finds expression.
Doron: And finally, anything else about the feeling of freedom and liberation?
Beverly: Working together has generated a mutual freedom. Each of us brought their own discipline to the relationship. I must say that, thanks to your generous help, today I am in a place of fewer questions and doubts. I have more self-confidence, therefore doing the right thing for me. Each day of creation brings with it, as stated, little surprises, and in the end a process of ‘liberation’, but it would be more precise to call it: the internal journey in search of my own truth.
Dr. Doron J. LurieLess