Museum exhibit: horses in classical art

20 05 2006

Some Derby revelers may fear on this Sunday after the first Saturday in May that there is no life after the annual spring bacchanalia of the Kentucky Derby. Anyone looking for a post-Derby grand-equine finale should head for a remarkable experience available only in a small, quiet town in Indiana a couple of hours north of Louisville.

“Horses in Classical Art” at the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington is high-charged scholarly entertainment drawn from 100 Etruscan, Greek, Byzantine and Roman artworks spanning 1,000 years. It is the deft creation of curator Adriana Calinescu, who works with an internationally envied ancient art collection.

What is on view is not what you might expect from a university teaching museum. This is superior stuff.

What’s fun is that the Greeks were clearly horse-crazy.

From the hippodrome to home, horses dominated important decorative arts, appearing on painted vases, furniture, jewelry and coinage and at the crossroads of human lives in wedding and funerary sculpture. Unlike much of the mundane equine art from this century and the last, this art shows how the ancient world held the horse as a dynamic comrade rather than a luxury consumer item or lottery-ticket surrogate. Achilles’ prophetic chariot horse, Xanthus, for instance, could speak and weep. It is this intimate admiration of the horse as an equal that makes the period so compelling.

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