'The entire history of humanity and of nature exists within the figure of the horse and rider, in every era. As a child, I observed these beings, man and horse, and they were a question mark to me. In the beginning there was a "harmony" between them, but in the end, in contrast to this unity, the world of the car arrived, a world which captured it in a dramatic, but no less vital and vitalising manner' (Lorenzo Papi (intr.), Centro di documentazione dell'opera di Marino Marini, Livorno, 1979, pp. 29-30).
Cavaliere is the quintessential example of Marini's most iconic theme, the horse and rider. Marini used this as a vehicle to convey his own disquiet about the human condition and about modernity using an iconographic element that was clearly descended from hallowed antiquity yet here had undergone a dramatic transformation. Conceived in 1951, arguably the most important moment in Marini's artistic career, this impressive sculpture of a rider losing control of his horse heralds the sense of climax and crisis that was increasingly dominating Marini's work. This example was cast shortly after the original model was created and was then acquired in 1955 by Unionen, a Swedish workers' union. Its gnarled surface is wrought with hatching, faint lines, grooves and incisions, filling the sculpture with a raw and expressive intensity while the bared grin of the horse and the panicked expression of the rider perfectly capture their anguish and despair.
The rider being thrown by its horse was a new and dramatic development in Marini's art - until only a few years earlier, Marini's riders had sat steady upon their steeds, joined in a mystic union that spoke of tradition and stability, mirroring those images of heroism and authority that had echoed down the millennia, a thread of iconography running from Marcus Aurelius to condottieri such as Giovanni Aguto and Gattamelata to Napoleon. The horse and rider was still a traditional sight during Marini's childhood in Italy. But now, increasingly, Marini's horses and riders symbolised the breakdown of this ancient tradition, the rupture of a bond that had stretched beyond man's memory. By the time he created Cavaliere, the horse and rider was a rare sight, seen in the last gasps of tradition such as horses and buggies, competitive and recreational equestrianism, processions and the Palio in Siena. This decline increased within Marini's sculptures: within a decade, his riders would become heavily stylised, falling violently from their horses, as is clear in his more jagged works from the 1960s.
In Cavaliere, we witness the crucial moment in the evolution of this theme, the man beginning to tumble backwards and lose control. Similarly, in stylistic terms, 1951 marked the moment at which Marini reached his purest idiom, letting go of the formality of his previous works while not yet fully embracing the rigid geometry of his later sculpture. Cavaliere marks the perfect balance between timelessness and modernity, between universal, eternal themes and the contemporary existentialism that had gripped so much of the European avant garde in the wake of the Second World War. The sturdy pyramid formed by the horse's legs and the towering head are filled with an authority that reflects the artist's consciousness of his own success in this work, while they highlight the central theme by contrasting with the puny, tumbling man.
For Marini, the increased drama and discord featuring in his horses and riders reflected a more universal crisis in the world:
'Personally, I no longer have the intention of celebrating the victory of a hero. I would like to express something tragic, almost the twilight of humanity, a defeat rather than a victory. If you consider, one after another, my statues... you will notice that each time the rider becomes less capable of mastering his horse and the animal becomes increasingly intractable and wilder instead of yielding. Quite seriously, I believe that we are approaching the end of the world' (Marini, quoted in H. Read, P. Waldberg and G. di San Lazzaro, Marino Marini, Complete Works, New York, 1970, p. 491).
Marini did not mean this in terms of apocalypse, but rather in terms of the passing of the old order. The world as he knew it was becoming unrecognisable, the old ways were being consumed by oblivion. This theme, then, is an amplified echo of the howling horse at the centre of Picasso's Guernica of 1937, a universal cry, a scream whose cousins are in the Otages of Jean Fautrier and the Popes of Francis Bacon. Marini's falling rider encapsulates the artist's idea that an old concept of Man himself was dying. This cavaliere is not merely unseated, but is dethroned: 'the catastrophes which strike [the riders] are similar to those which destroyed Sodom and Pompeii. Thus I am trying to symbolise the last phase of the decomposition of a myth - that of the heroic and victorious man, of the "uomo di virtù" of the humanists' (Marini, quoted in H. Read et al., ibid., p. 491). Marini underscores this in Cavaliere by making the phallic horse topple the man; masculinity has been reduced to a wild destructive force.
Despite the end of the world being a central concept in Cavaliere, Marini's art is not intended as the gravestone of a damned civilisation. Cavaliere is cathartic. Marini was increasing awareness, forcing people to confront the uglier aspects of the human condition through his art: 'Tragedy can also enrich us, if it augments our humanity and our participation in the existence of all' (Papi (intr.), op. cit., 1979, p. 19). Cavaliere is therefore in part intended to prompt the viewers to a new understanding of our situation and, through awareness, to unite us.
One of the great watersheds in Marini's work was his 1950 visit to the United States of America, and especially New York. There, he was struck by the modernity and feverish expansion of the place, with its gleaming towers and furious bustle, but also by the absence of European references. The artist who claimed to be an Etruscan found himself in a city, and indeed a country, extremely foreign to his profoundly European roots. Marini's interest in the Etruscans who had peopled the area around his native Pistoia had not only been patriotic, but had also been based on the culture's originality. 'I like to get down to the source of things,' he stated. 'I am interested in a civilisation that creates; I have always sought the element that was the kernel of a civilisation, for instance the Etruscans' (Papi, op. cit., 1979, p.17). This is evident in the pared-back modelling of Cavaliere, where Marini has used a style that appears to be the highest common factor of all figurative art and culture. Marini was fascinated by the Etruscans rather than the Romans, with the smooth perfectionism of their classical forms leaving him cold. Likewise, it was the mediaeval sculpture of a mounted man in Bamberg Cathedral that Marini had seen as early as 1934, the so-called Bamberger Reiter of the Thirteenth Century, in Germany, in the North, far from classical and Renaissance Italy, that had rammed home the power of the horse and rider as an image. While he confessed his admiration for Donatello, he explained that he valued him as a 'result' rather than as a 'beginning.' Donatello's Gattamelata in Padua may thus be related to Cavaliere, but it is rather to the more hieratic, stylised and therefore more expressive art-forms of the Egyptians, the Etruscans and the mediaevals that Marini's sculpture shows kinship.
Although some of his works from this time onwards were marked by jagged edges and jutting angles reminiscent of the harsh lines of the modern city or the automobile, Cavaliere is filled with elegance and restraint. It is as though Marini has scraped away the superficial aspects of each culture, reaching the 'kernel' that so interested him. In his pre-1950 works, this resulted in a more evidently Etruscan style, but here he has delved even deeper, into a well of universal aesthetics and understanding.
While Marini's sculptures tackle universal themes, they are also deeply intimate works. After the early 1950s, an increasing stylisation, tainted by self-consciousness, would be evident in his works, detracting from the subject matter. The later works became more machine influenced, with their angles and the increasingly featureless face, whereas in Cavaliere Marini has harnessed simple curves, a robust sense of presence. Likewise, the face itself, with its popping eyes and the mouth wide, has more of a specificity than later works. This reduced style is more profoundly Marini's: in Cavaliere, he has reached his own, very private core. While Marini's art can be seen as some form of social commentary in his opinions on culture, Cavaliere ensures that the viewer understands how deeply personal his art is. As he himself stated, 'Passion, worry, love, but also suffering, disgrace, or even fantasy, if they are left within you, they will damage you, but if you discharge them into a sculpture they will liberate you and give you happiness' (Papi, op. cit., 1979, p. 29).