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Duchamp-Villon, Horse

Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Horse, 1914, bronze, 39-3/8 x 24 x 36 inches / 99 x 61 x 91.4 cm (Art Institute of Chicago). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively piano music) Steven: In some ways, the 20th century starts in 1914 with the outbreak of the first World War and ultimately, the collapse of the great empires of the 19th century. This is such a moment of transition and that idea is beautifully embodied in a sculpture by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Horse from 1914. Beth: And in fact, the creation of this sculpture was interrupted by the first World War and so, it really is a pivot for the 20th century and for the sculpture. Steven: In fact, the artist was only able to finish it when he was on leave from the army. So, what do we see? Beth: We see a horse but only when I stand in particular places as we walk around it. The spot where we're standing now, I see a galloping horse. Steven: Where do you find that? Beth: This vertical form as a leg and I see the diagonal behind it, as the legs coming together, the way that a horse's legs come together when it's galloping. So, I see a horse in motion and I see the mane of the horse whipping around in the wind. and the head of the horse [the] circular shapes below. Steven: Ah, okay. So, I can just make out slightly more rounded forms at the very front and perhaps make out the face of the horse ever so slightly and I can certainly see a little bit of a hoof down at the bottom. But this is a hard piece of metal. It's geometric. This is certainly not a naturalistic rendering of a horse. Although, if you look at the early sketches of the sculpture, you can see something derived directly from nature. Beth: That's right and it really is only for very specific points of view as you walk around it that it comes to barely resemble a horse but for the most part, it looks very mechanical. I feel like I see bolts and nuts and rivets. Steven: There really is only a trace of the horse left. Only a trace of the organic, what we're seeing instead are cogs and pistons and rotors and the transformation into the machine, this is the power of the 20th century. Beth: And so, we might think about cubism in the reduction of the horse to geometric shapes and we might also think about futurism in the interest in movement and dynamism. This is very machine-like. Steven: You have this dark bronze, you have this hard angles and edges, the machined surface, all of these is a product of industry. The Great European powers entered into the first World War, thinking that this would be perhaps a war like those of the 19th century but it would be in fact, the war that would collapse the Great Empires of Europe. It would be a war where the cavalry where the horses would be replaced by tanks. Beth: The horses were completely ineffective in World War I. Steven: Well, that's right. You had trenches. You had mustard gas. Beth: We had barbed wire. And perhaps most devastating, you had machine guns that could lay fire across the fields of Belgium, across the fields of Northern France and horses and the cavalry didn't stand a chance. They were replaced by armor and armored vehicles and so, here we have in the sculpture at this critical moment, this transition from the 19th century, the historic direct kind of combat to a mechanized combat that was far more deadly. Beth: And that reminds us really of the way war is fought now in the early 21st century. Steven: And so, we have a sculpture that is both beautiful and terrifying as well. And it encapsulates our fears and our hopes. The mechanization that this horse represents, the Machine Age has raised our standard of living. It has done great good but it also brought terrible violence and all of that complication is beautifully encapsulated by the artist here. (lively piano music)