Inge-Lise Ravn (*1943)
Horse and Rider
Photography on dibond board
147 x 100 cm
Collection of the artist
BREWER J.C. JACOBSEN’S PORTRAIT AWARD
SPECIAL PRIZE: INGE-LISE RAVN
The jury awards a Special Prize to the Danish artist Inge-Lise Ravn with the following citation:
It is a big, breezy, black-and-white photograph that immediately grabs our attention: a mature woman wearing a casual sailor-like pullover sits astride a leaping horse with no reins, her legs stretched out as though she wanted to stop the animal in mid-air to take a quick, sidelong peek at the viewer. The woman, who happens to be the artist, Inge-Lise Ravn, is as mundane and commonplace in appearance as the title of the work, Horse and Rider, is deceptively simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, the image is much more subversive than a summary glance might suggest, and could easily serve to promote a variety of products, such as a certain kind of beer or cheese, reminding us of how the advertising industry habitually creates a vacuous zone between the merchandize and its presentation by inducing a muddled yearning and uncritical acceptance in the prospective consumer.
On further inspection there is something decidedly spooky about the carefree bucolic sentiment initially aroused by the picture. What might be at first mistaken for a hobby- or rocking-horse reveals itself to be a somewhat distorted stallion on which every strand of hair is almost palpably depicted. The female equestrian does not receive much of a make-over either. To the contrary, the photographic hyper-realism highlights every wrinkle, warts and all, on the enigmatic countenance which is both stark and tender. The picture was conceived by means of computer manipulation (i.e. Photoshop) and pieced together with the assistance of the artist’s son, who is a graphic designer. Its frozen, disjointed composition—the rider, a flesh-and-blood stick-figure, floats above the horse without touching it—lends the image an eerie physical presence that stems as much from the virtual twilight zone as from our so-called down-to-earth reality.
Set against an expansive pitch-black background that fills the frame, suggesting that it goes on ad infinitum, the portrait immediately recalls a host of equestrian statues throughout the ages, a tradition that reaches at least as far back as ancient Athens. Western art is replete with paintings of knights and kings mounted on horseback to celebrate their masculine prowess and victorious conquests, as well as of aristocratic landlords with their country estate in the background bearing testimony to their territorial ownership.
Given the radical shift in the revised balance of power between the sexes over the past few decades and the active participation of women in all walks of life, notably in art and academia where they have rapidly outnumbered the males, the picture can be seen as symbolizing the demise of virility, a tongue-in cheek castration and terminal dismantling of the patriarchal order, without lapsing into vulgar feminism or resorting to militant in-your-face Guerrilla Girls tactics. Ironically, the work was made in loving memory of Ravn’s father, who occasionally took her as a child to the stables to buy horses where he would seal a purchase with a firm handshake in the old fashion manner of gentlemen traders, although his daughter never got to ride any of the stallions.
However, the motivation behind creating a work of art and what it appears to comprise may differ radically, brimming as it may be with both conscious and unconscious allusions to a wider historical and social context. Judging from the posture of the horse it might derive from any number of paintings prior to 1872 when Eadweard Muybridge demonstrated, with photographic proof, that no horse has all four feet off the ground when running, a myth often repeated by artists until that time who showed fore and hind legs simultaneously extended in mid-air. In fact, the peculiar posture in Ravns’s photograph does not depict a horse running, but jumping. It is carrying out a capriole, a leap into the air where the horse jumps without moving forwards and kicks backwards with its hind legs at the height of the leap. Ravn first came across the capriole on a postcard, a maneuver designed to have lethal consequences and for which battle horses were rigorously trained long before it was reduced to a circus trick.
More illuminatingly, the picture is based on an actual horse named Coureur who was very much alive exactly 324 years ago, the oldest and the only one left of its kind. It belonged to a Danish breed known as Knabstrupper, distinguished by its spotted leopardesque coat, once the pride and joy of the Danish monarchy during the baroque period but now all but extinct. Actually, there are no such purebreds to be found any longer as less than 30 percent of its DNA survives in the most closely related pedigree breed, the Appaloosa.
Robert, 1st Viscount Molsworth (1656-1725), British ambassador to Denmark, was convinced that the horse was no match for an English thoroughbred in terms of speed and endurance, so in 1689 he made a bet of one thousand gold ducats with the royal equerry, Baron von Haxthausen, that Coureur could not run from Frederiksborg Palace in Hillerød to the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen in less than 45 minutes, a distance of 35 kilometers. Molsworth was not only a nobleman but an intellectual and a scientist in his own right who, by inventing the chronometer for calculating longitude, earned the respect of Sir Isaac Newton himself.
As it turned out, the race between the two horses was more a matter of chauvinistic pride than anything to do with science and was eagerly monitored by Denmark’s absolute monarch, Christian V, and his subjects. Coureur saved the day for the Danes by reaching its destination in 42 minutes but tragically collapsed and died from exhaustion shortly afterwards. It was subsequently stuffed by a taxidermist in the classical capriole position before being placed on display as a showpiece at the Royal Stables in Christiansborg where it can still be seen today. The mummified steed has undergone frequent restorations, most recently in 2011, and is now only a spectre of its former glorious self.
Incidentally, the world’s strongest girl, Pippi Longstocking, has a Knabstrupper by the name of Lilla Gubben (“Little Man”) which she uses for one-arm pushups and which she happily carries around instead of riding—a fictional reminder that the deconstruction of the masculine establishment has been some time in the making (appropriately, Ravn seems to have significantly reduced the size of Coureur). It is a far cry from the cave painting of a distant relative of the Knabstrupper found in Pech Merle in Southern France made by the nomadic Cromagnon people during the upper Palaeolithic period about 25,000 years ago, when man had not yet taken possession of the animal kingdom and the battle of the sexes, if it indeed existed at the time, remains forever muted.
A painting from 1694, located in the Rosenborg Castle, shows a warrior exercising his martial skills on a Knabstrupper, attired in full armour and charging at an imaginary enemy with a lance. By comparison Ravn’s reserved and solemn demeanor does not even amount to a fighting with windmills in the chivalric spirit of Don Quixote, since she is apparently bent on conquering the Empire of Nothingness in the middle of a cosmic vacuum. When Coureur died humanity was still very much at the centre of the universe, notwithstanding Copernicus’ revision of the solar system, and benevolently watched over by the Almighty. Now we have become much smaller than a grain of sand in a cosmos that is expanding at an ever increasing rate because of dark energy, as established in 1998 by Nobel laureates Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt, and which possibly belongs to a multiverse with eleven dimensions where our ultimate fate, or rather that of our galaxy, is to be left absolutely alone and isolated as if the Big Bang never happened.
The dramatic contrast between light and darkness, the horse and rider versus the background, technically known as chiaroscuro or tenebrism in certain cases, recalls the works of Caravaggio and Georges de La Tour who strove to induce powerful religious sentiments. Accordingly, the photograph could aptly be subtitled Inge-Lise in Post-Wonderland Triumphing over the Void or if one prefers a more prophetic caption, The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse (obviously an undercover metaphysical agent), as the jockey leaves behind the relics of (art) history. No longer endorsing Christ Pantocrator, the representational flatness of the image has nevertheless more in common with emblematic Byzantine iconography, where the opaque photographic emulsion has replaced the gold leaf that signifies the celestial heavens rather than the spatial and chronological dimensions encountered in the late Renaissance. Closing in on our epoch, the photograph also strikes some accord with the existential and angst-ridden mythomorphic abstractionism of Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newmann and in particular Mark Rothko, who obsessed about the void and the spiritual emptiness of modernity, the agony, tragedy and loneliness of man. Rothko’s darkly luminous rectangular color fields—frayed, flat and “timeless”—were meant to operate on the subconscious and thus transcend specific history and culture. It is worth adding that his style has recently inspired Ravn to make a series of large woodcuts and ink paintings.
We are in the rabbit hole of “Inge-Lise in Post-Wonderland”, rushing by the historical leftovers in the black tunnel with nothing to hold on to but our fleeting reflections. And down, down we go, through antiquity, the medieval era, past the Renaissance, the industrial revolution and the ravages of modernism towards the advent of the computer age and the predomination of science on the way to our utterly secular present deep in the digital matrix.
Ravn’s self-portrait is an anti-heroic and yet almost absurdly optimistic statement in bleak times when humanity faces unparalleled global crisis on all fronts—ecological, financial, political, social, ideological—and the old world order has come to the end of the road, whether we are ready to acknowledge it or not. But there is light in the darkness waiting to be discovered, in the middle of nowhere where up and down, left and right, have lost all intrinsic meaning. Tilted, as if it were warped by some strange visual gravity, the blind horse tapers slightly off as if sucked into an invisible black-hole, while the rider looks us sternly in the eyes, refusing to provide any directions or divulging a soothing message that might give our wandering minds a little rest.
This is not a haughty monarch optically addressing the crowd from a lofty abode and urging the citizens to “keep calm and carry on” as the highly volatile world we inhabit today collapses under the dialectical weight of its own insatiable and contradictory desires. Fittingly, the picture was made for the exhibition “Ego” held at the Center for Contemporary Art in Århus last year. The silent equestrian poses as memento mori, a reminder of our impending extinction, the only certainty on offer. Galloping in opposite directions, as one might wrongly assume from its twofold prancing legwork, the trunk of the horse looks as if it may be torn apart at any given moment, leaving the rider abandoned in the roadless abyss. Her stiff-necked head is theatrically twisted on the torso, hovering uncannily still above it like a bright globe in the otherwise empty firmament.
Still, despite the underlying eschatological gloom and doom, there is a sunny side to the photo that emanates an inner light, one that mirrors our own awareness. In so doing, it turns out to be a self-portrait—of us, of the human condition. Hence we have come a full circle back to where we started with a rather jolly looking picture of a horse and rider set against the blank slate of oblivion, an ode to life as the artist intended.
Prize winner Inge-Lise Ravn and Flemming Besenbacher, chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation. The Great Hall, Frederiksborg Castle, May 2013.