Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Horses: Circling the World


Mingei International Museum, San Diego, ongoing

The term Mingei refers to the “arts of the people” and is literally comprised of the Japanese words for all people (min) and art (gei). Coined by the scholar Dr. Yanagi Soetsu in the mid 1920s, the Mingei tradition was a direct response to the industrialized values and loss of the maker’s mark increasingly evident in everyday objects. To combat these trends, the Mingei tradition celebrated the anonymous craftsperson, whose identity is reflected through the material they craft. Rather than seeking beauty in originality or uniqueness, the objects crafted under the values of the Mingei tradition sought beauty through their function. Humble materials, crafted into an object for daily use by skilful practitioners with form following function epitomise the tradition.

Established over a quarter of a century ago, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, California has assembled a collection based on an expanded definition of the original values of the Mingei tradition. The museum mission statement declares its commitment to “furthering understanding of the art of people from all cultures of the world” and collects and exhibits folk art that is both functional and non-functional, made by anonymous and celebrated craftspeople. The museum has displayed a diverse exhibition schedule ranging from the “Art That Soars”, an exhibition of kites by Jackie Matisse, to “Carved Paper: The Art of the Japanese Stencil” and the industrially produced textiles of the celebrated American designer Jack Lenor Larsen. The collection currently exceeds fourteen thousand objects and spans the world with work fashioned from all manner of materials and techniques. The museum’s broad interpretation of the original tenants of the Mingei tradition has afforded it a freedom to bridge disciplinary divisions between Fine Art and Craft. In doing so it embraces the reality that much contemporary craft is driven by concept rather than function and applies this broader definition of function to folk art from the past.

Recently, the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park expanded to include a second satellite museum in Escondido, North San Diego County. “Horses – Circling the World” is one of several exhibitions currently on display at the new North Country space. The exhibition includes sculptures of horses whose diverse functions include the role they play in theatre, as children’s toys and religious objects. Examples hail from India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Sweden, England, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States of America and are made of wood, metal, clay and straw. The collection captures the horse in its many guises: as selfless worker, worshipped deity, wild sprit, noble beast and childhood companion.

The horse as a subject has captured the imagination of makers for centuries. In ancient Greek myth, the defeat of the Trojans by the Achaeans was aided by a gift of a giant wooden horse. The Trojan’s great mistake was to think the giant sculpture was a gift of good will. Only after the effects of a hard night of celebration had taken hold did the giant sculpture open to reveal its cargo of angry Achaeans ready to ransack the hung-over city. In Medieval times, the strength of the giant but slow heavy horses of northern European breeding were necessary to withstand the weighty suits of armor soldiers wore. Not only did these soldiers find that the horses of Arabian descent that they met on the Crusades could run circles around their mounts, but the suits of heavy armour they wore meant that they often needed to be winched onto their horses and, if unlucky enough to fall in battle, often proved too heavy to move under the wearers own strength. Vestiges of military symbolism continue to include horses today. American policemen may ride motorcycles but they continue to dress in riding boots and outdated jodhpurs with flared hips. The late American president Ronald Reagan’s state funeral included among its pageantry a riderless horse – the evocative symbol of a fallen leader.

In today’s modern world the role of horses is varied. In the developing nations horses continue to labour in crop fields and pull carts. Elsewhere they have become sophisticated animals of sport from the controversy of fox hunting to the glamour of racing. Their stature ranges from the diminutive Icelandic ponies to the Clydesdales used by Anheuser-Busch in the popular Budweiser Beer advertisements. Beyond the pedestrian world of beer and sport, folklore suggests the small dent often found in the neck or flank of many horses of Arabian breeding is the sign of the prophet’s thumb mark, acknowledgement that Allah himself has seen over this creation and marked it worthy.

“Horses – Circling the World” reflects the diverse imagery horses have evoked over time. Childhood ambitions to own a pony are collected together in their more likely substitutes: wooden rocking horses and toys on wheels. The magic of carnival rides and the merry-go-round with its baffling choice of spinning steeds bare the timeworn colours of age, but have lost none of the magic which a carnival conjures. Other examples are meant for stage, such as the Javanese theatre puppet, legs and body absent, so that a performer can straddle the prop and ride around the stage under their own steam. One can almost envision the rocking motion and theatrical footfalls imprinted in the work’s hide and hair.

If the function of these objects is surprisingly diverse, so too is the equine conformation they record. Wooden and clay muscles either strain against work or seem to be straining to work. Artistic distortions bulge nonexistent muscles or elongate conformation into a work of art rather than record of nature. Along with the natural colours of wood and clay are vestiges of paint and pageantry, colourful coats of now worn celebrations. When collected together, this eclectic grouping – connected only by theme rather than era or culture – reveals how diverse and original the instinct to record the life around us can be.

Crafts Arts International (No. 63, 2005: 103-104)