Horses in Motion

While I was proofreading my post “Encountering Attic Pottery” one more time after putting it online, I stopped to look again at the photograph of the horse racers by the Leagros Group.  It’s hard for me to tell whether this depicts the animals lined up at a starting post, or making a turn around the end of the track, although I suspect the latter, as most of these Panathenaic vases depict an event in process.  Either way, the sense of motion I described earlier is inescapable, whether they are pawing the ground in anticipation of release or extending into a gallop.


Panathenaic black-figure amphora (detail), Leagros Group, c. 510 BC, 63. cm; collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

And as I looked, I began to notice the composition and in particular the way each set of forelegs, moving left to right, is shown at a slightly higher elevation.  I realized that this is partly dictated by principles of composition.  But it also contributes to the sense of motion, almost as if this were a portrait of a single horse and rider.  In other words, it brought Edweard Muybridge’s motion studies to mind.

Edweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion, 1878

Edweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion, 1878

It’s a lovely contrast between art and science, wouldn’t you agree?  The Muybridge breaks the animal’s motion down into a series of discrete elements, making the mechanics of the gallop easy to study, the components identifiable.  But in contrast, for the Athenian painter, the sense of movement, of both rising and falling, of straining, of inertia, even, is paramount.  These elements are missing from the photographic studies.  Muybridge isolates; the Athenian captures flex and continuity.  Moreover, you need to have some knowledge external to the artifact to understand what is happening in Muybridge’s series (maybe less so today when these images and their context are so well known, so much a part of our cultural heritage).  The experience portrayed on the amphora strikes me as far more immediate and accessible.  It really doesn’t matter if I understand the iconography, if I know whether this represents a moment before the start of the race, or another in the midst of the competition.  The motion and athleticism is there in either case and equally effective.

And since for me art is all about connections, about expressing one thing in terms of another, while looking at these photographs, my mind drifted from Muybridge to music, to one of my favorite compositions by Philip Glass.  The Photographer (1982), a chamber opera, is based on the trial of Muybridge for the murder of Major Harry Larkyns.  In some of its parts, as the tempo of Glass’s repeated rhythms build, you can easily imagine the acceleration of the horse, beats falling ever more rapidly like hooves around a race track.  The music connects a stadium in ancient Athens and Leland Stanford’s Palo Alto track, bridging centuries as art will do, evaporating temporal distance in the space of the mind.


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