Equestrian images have a long and esteemed tradition in Western art. Throughout the centuries, paintings and sculptures of men on horseback, often depicting noble cavalrymen or generals mounted on their steed, celebrated the glories and victories of an era or an empire. But the sculptures of riders and horses that Marino Marini created after the Second World War are a radical departure from this tradition. Conceived in the midst of profound political transformation, Marini's riders are a response to the wave of uncertainty that engulfed civilisation during the Cold War. Marini was obsessed with making the horse and rider theme applicable to the contemporary age, and no other artist in the history of 20th century art came close to revitalising this age-old subject with such creativity and expressive force. His anonymous, highly abstracted horsemen eschew any pomp or pretence and are rich with psychological complexity and formal beauty. This monumental sculpture from 1955 of a rider and his horse, rigid with explosive tension, is a wonderful example of the artist's achievements in this area.
Marini's interest in the horse and rider theme initially derived from the Etruscan and classical Roman sculptures, such as the iconic equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, that he had seen as a young art student in Italy. His first serious artistic consideration of the theme occurred during the early 1930s, after travelling to Northern Europe where he saw the 11th century equestrian statue of Emperor Henry II in Bamberg cathedral (fig. 2). Marini's admiration for these medieval examples, as well as for Degas's sculptures of racehorses, the Italian Futurists' mechanised horses, and Picasso's terrified horse in Guernica, inspired him to explore equestrian themes in his art. Over the next several decades, Marini's horsemen became increasingly abstract, and the bodies of the horse and rider were simplified to their most elemental components. By the 1950s, when the present work was created, Marini developed what is largely considered his most powerful representations of this subject. Reflecting on the development of these sculptures, he wrote: 'In the end, my passion for the horse represented a personal research into a kind of visual architecture. The horse's form is the opposite of man's; the horse is horizontal, man is vertical... However, the concept changed over the years, and at a certain point what had been serene and tranquil became agitated and expressionistic' (quoted in Sam Hunter, Marino Marini, The Sculpture, New York, 1993, p. 78).
Remarkable and rare for its monumentality, this sculpture is further enhanced by its bright colouration. The choice of red and black pigment and the abrupt strokes with which it is applied recall the aesthetic of the German Expressionists as well as the polychrome totems of Native American tribal art. In contrast to an earlier large-scale bronze from 1949-50, The Town's Guardian Angel (fig. 3), which displays a steadier, more balanced composition, L'Idea del cavaliere demonstrates the expressive shift of Marini's art after the war. No longer satisfied with renderings of stoic figures on horseback, Marini, like many post-war Italian artists, and Giacometti, invested his work with an intensity and emotionalism that had not been present in his earlier sculpture. The shift was most pronounced in the Cavaliere series, in which the riders now seemed to freeze with terror or brace themselves for the imminent bucking of their horse. 'My equestrian figures are symbols of the anguish that I feel when I survey contemporary events,' Marini wrote about the development of these sculptures. 'Little by little, my horses become more restless, their riders less and less able to control them. Man and beast are both overcome by a catastrophe much like those that struck Sodom and Pompeii' (ibid., p. 60).
In his later years, Marini explained the evolution of the cavaliere in his art, noting how the horse and rider responded to the ever-changing tenor of world events. 'Equestrian statues have always served, through the centuries, a kind of epic purpose. They set out to exalt a triumphant hero... But the nature of the relationship which existed for centuries between man and the horse has changed, whether we think of the beast of burden that the ploughman leads to the drinking trough in a painting by the brothers Le Nain, or of the Percherons ridden by the horse-traders in Rosa Bonheur's famous picture, or again of the stallion that rears as it is spurred by one of the cavalrymen paintings by Géricault or Delacroix. In the past fifty years, this ancient relationship between man and beast has been entirely transformed. The horse has been replaced, in its economic and military functions, by the machine, the tractor, the automobile or the tank. It has become a prime symbol of sport or of decadent luxury, and, in the minds of most of our contemporaries, it is rapidly becoming a kind of lost myth (ibid. p. 24).
The present sculpture was originally executed in polychrome plaster, which is now in the Collezione d'Arte Religiosa Moderna, Musei Vaticani in Rome. Other casts from the edition of four bronzes are at the Museo Marino Marini in Milan and the San Diego Museum of Art. In 1956, Marini carved a unique painted wood version of this work, which was sold at Sotheby's New York in May 2007 (fig. 4).
Fig. 1, Marini in his studio, in front of the plaster model of the present work, 1962
Fig. 2, Equestrian Statue of Emperor Henry II, circa 1230, stone, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg
Fig. 3, Marino Marini, The Town's Guardian Angel, 1949-50, bronze (height: 172cm.), The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice
Fig. 4, Marino Marini, Idea del cavaliere, unique painted wood, 1956. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 8th May 2007
Bronze, painted by the artist
Height: 220cm. 86 5/8 in.
Patrick Waldberg, Herbert Read & Gualtieri di San Lazzaro, Marino Marini, Complete Works, New York, 1970, no. 332, edition catalogued p. 372; colour illustration of the wood example p. 185 (with incorrect measurements)
Carlo Pirovano, Marino Marini – Scultore, Milan, 1972, no. 338, edition catalogued and illustration of the wood example p. 168
Mercedes Precerutti Garberi, Marino Marini alla Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Milano, Milan, 1973, p. 165
Lorenzo Papi, Marino Marini. Impressioni di Lorenzo Papi, Ivrea, 1987, illustration of another cast n.p.
Giovanni Iovane, Marino Marini, Milan, 1990, p. 96
Marco Meneguzzo, Marino Marini – Il Museo alla Villa Reale di Milano, Milan, 1997, no. 84, p. 226
Fondazione Marino Marini, Marino Marini, Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculptures, Milan, 1998, no. 412b, colour illustration of another cast p. 286
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist in 1964)
Jeffrey H. Loria, New York (acquired from the above in 1977)
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above)
Private Collection, U.S.A.
Acquired from the above by the present owner