The Muybridge Problem

I was wondering this morning why it is that narrative paintings always seem to fall so flat for a modern viewer (i.e. me). Not just those cheesy C19th paintings with titles like A Soldier Returns; even paintings by artists I find more sympathetic — Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez — seem very obviously unconvincing when they try to capture a spontaneous moment. It occurred to me that the explanation might simply be what you could call the Muybridge problem.

Famously, Eadweard Muybridge started taking his high-speed photographs in an attempt to answer the question: do horses ever have all four hooves off the ground when they gallop? The answer turned out to be yes: but not quite what everyone expected. Before that, even someone as devoted to the careful study of the horse as Stubbs had painted galloping horses with all four feet off the ground when their legs were outstretched; in fact a galloping horse only has all feet off the ground when they are bent underneath it.

But if you have seen lots of photos of running horses, all those old paintings of horses flying like Superman over Epsom Downs look faintly but irretrievably ludicrous. Photography has permanently changed what we think things look like; and that doesn’t just apply to horses.

» The Stubbs is a detail from Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey; the Muybridge is a detail from The Horse in Motion, both from Wikimedia Commons.

Stubbs and Quinn

I went to see the ‘Stubbs and the horse‘ exhibition at the National. But first things first; the Alison Lapper statue works much better in the flesh then I expected.

For those of you who don’t know, at the corners of Trafalgar Square are four plinths to hold large statues. Three of them are occupied (by George IV, General Charles Napier and Major General Sir Henry Havelock). But the fourth plinth remained empty from when it was built in 1841 until 1999, when campaigners from the Fourth Plinth project managed to persuade everyone involved to use it as a site for temporary artworks. Its position in front of the National Gallery gives it a natural connection to the world of art, but it’s also in an automatic dialogue with all the other statues in the Square – including Nelson, of course. The new occupant is a marble statue by Marc Quinn of disabled artist Alison Lapper pregnant. I haven’t got a photo of the actual statue in situ, but this is a model from the commissioning process:

picture of 'Alison Lapper Pregnant' by Marc Quinn

What you don’t appreciate from that is the scale – 3.55m tall, apparently. That immediately ties it in with the other statues in the Square. It feels like a piece of official public art; it has something of that heavy blandness to it. But because of the unusual subject matter, that depersonalisation actually works in its favour; it makes it seem natural to have a huge marble statue of a pregnant naked woman with no arms.

The Stubbs on the other hand was less interesting. Horses, horses and more horses. What I liked most about them – a kind of stillness, a posed, statuesque simplicity – was, I suspect, due to Stubbs’s technical limitations rather than an aesthetic choice, because late in his career he did some action pictures of horses being attacked by lions, and they’re terrible.

There was something quite democratic about the paintings, though; it doesn’t matter if you’re the Duke of Portland or a stablehand, you’re still going to play second fiddle to the horse.

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