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Raymond Duchamp-Villon - Le Cheval/The Horse

by Helen Bremm

What at first looks like a snail, turns out to be a horse's head with mane and a highly abstracted torso upon closer inspection and inclusion of the title. As was common in Cubism, the artist broke his subject into geometric shapes and attempted to depict different angles of the animal simultaneously. Influences of Italian Futurism can be found in the theme of locomotion and speed and in the mechanization of the horse. The joints of the large animal are reminiscent of screws, and the cross connection between the legs is reminiscent of the metal bracing on railroad wheels. The work represents the mutation of nature into industrial machine. The horse is considered Duchamp-Villon's masterpiece

With this depiction of the horse he speaks out of his historical moment. He created The Horse in 1914 when he was already serving as a doctor in the First World War. The year of creation, 1914, was remembered as the year between the euphoria of industrial and civil progress and the horrors and cruelties of the first fully mechanized and industrialized war. Horses had already been replaced by machines in agriculture and industry; by World War I, even cavalry proved old-fashioned and became history with the introduction of tanks.

The work expresses mixed feelings about the horse's transformation. On the one hand, Duchamp-Villon designs the horse with strong and massive torso, bending dynamically and powerfully, as a majestic new machine creature. On the other hand, it seems at the same time painfully bent and cramped, the small head lowered, the heavy body sinking half sideways to the ground. The work seems to ask the viewer, in the light of the First World War, whether the progress of industrialization and now technologization is an improvement of our lives and civilization, or the downfall of humanity and everything natural.

Duchamp-Villon never attended art school and taught himself to sculpt. He was inspired by his brothers Marcel Duchamp and Jaques Villon, both of whom were also artists. His participation in the 1905 and 1907 Salon d'Automne (Autumn Salon) in Paris established him as an avant-garde artist . His artistic career was abruptly ended by his death from typhoid fever in 1918 during the war. Many of his bronzes, including this work, were cast after his death and made him famous.

In our current context, where we are now becoming more and more machines ourselves as humans through prostheses, implants, and other technologies, Raymond Duchamp-Villon's work and the hopes and fears it expresses are again highly relevant.

© photo rights: helen bremm

Raymond Duchamp-Villon - Le Cheval/The Horse

cast ca. 1930, 43,6 x 41 cm, collection Peggy Guggenheim in Venice


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