Kadhim Hayder – Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing

Kadhim Hayder, Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (oil on canvas) 1965

Please note: The text below is a revised version of the post which appeared earlier today.

Iraqi artist Kadhim Hayder’s stunning canvas (pictured above) is currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery, as part of an exhibition of Arab art on loan to the gallery from the Barjeel Art Foundation until 6 December.

In a spacious, well-lit room, full of striking paintings, all vying for attention, Hayder’s stylized horses really catch the eye. Two things struck me when I first saw this picture. The first is that Hayder’s war weary horses are every bit as iconic as the more widely known emblematic peace dove, and arguably the horses are more eloquent, captured as they are literally in conversation.

Over and above the most immediate element, namely the candid purity of these creatures, I find the composition particularly striking: here we are presented with a group of ten white horses in poses that suggest not only exhaustion but also the virtues of trust, affection and mutual support. An eleventh horse, of a different shade, would appear to be outside the group seeking admission. The fierce red warrior sun is clearly an element that alludes to battle, but these are not war horses, and in this harsh landscape they are clearly longing for rest and for peace. The respite from fighting allows them to engage in that most human activity: conversation, dialogue.

The second thought that struck me was the extent to which art transcends frontiers and ideologies, and the particulars of historical time to create, as it were, a universal plane or dimension of expression in which every single work produced contributes to a single, artistic, life-affirming communion, one of abiding relevance to our shared humanity. This community has a universal language of values which reflects the essential aspirations of humanity: love and solidarity along with truth and beauty. It is for this reason that artistic products do not date, or why, in a nutshell, all art is contemporary.

Jonathan Swift refers to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in his 1727 preface to Gulliver’s Travels, and I would suggest that no reader of Swift’s dystopia could fail to see in Hayder’s painting something of the wisdom of the Irishman’s Houyhnhnms – the race of intelligent horses described in the last part of his satire.

Piling on the irony in his preface, Swift writes that even from the most degenerate specimens of these Houyhnhnms, he still had much to learn from their virtues. And in describing the time he spent in Houyhnhnmland under the wise tutelage of one of their elders, he says:

Yahoo as I am, it is well known through all Houyhnhnmland, that, by the instructions and example of my illustrious master, I was able in the compass of two years (although I confess with the utmost difficulty) to remove that infernal habit of lying, shuffling, deceiving, and equivocating, so deeply rooted in the very souls of all my species; especially the Europeans.

In authentic art, the thrust for truth and beauty is everywhere apparent, and although Swift’s satire was directed at the political classes of his day, it transcends its historical context and is as relevant now as ever: and I would argue that the same could be applied to Kadim Hayder’s beautifully expressive canvas.

There are, of course, many other fascinating paintings in this exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, so well worth the visit if you have the time. See http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/

After studying art in Baghdad in the 1950s, Kadhim Hayder (1932-85) pursued theatre design and graphics at the Royal School of Art and Graphics in London. He returned to Iraq in 1962, founding the department of design at the Institute of Fine Arts and chairing its visual arts department.

Utopia – Thomas More

Thomas More

In these austere times, when one of the world’s richest countries calls upon some of its poorest citizens to bear the brunt of national debt repayment, it is salutary to re-read Thomas More’s Utopia. The word ‘utopian’ has long passed into the language, but these days relatively few people take the trouble to read More’s text which was originally published in Latin by his friend Erasmus in 1516 – note the 500th anniversary comes up next year. The text of Utopia first appeared in English translation in 1551 after More had been royally executed by Henry VIII.

Utopia takes the form of a discussion between More himself and his learned friend, the narrator/traveller, Raphael Hythlodaeus, based on the character of Erasmus. They discuss the ills of contemporary Antwerp, and describe the social and political structures prevailing in the imaginary island country of Utopia. The name Utopia is normally understood to mean “no place”, somewhere which does not exist; but the term is in fact a Greek pun signifying simultaneously ‘no place’ and ‘good place’. Utopia compares the contentious social life of European states with the perfectly orderly, reasonable social arrangements of Utopia and its environs.

In Utopia, there are no lawyers because of the simplicity of its laws and because social gatherings are in public view, thus encouraging participants to behave well; communal ownership replaces private property; men and women are educated alike; and there is almost complete religious tolerance. Readers of More’s humanist work will also notice in the enlightened communities he describes, the complete absence of zero hours contracts, food banks and poverty and social injustice. Salutary reading for our times, methinks!

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was a lawyer and a councillor to Henry VIII in addition to being a noted Renaissance scholar. Disagreement with the king on a point of Canon law led to him being tried and executed for treason. Below is an extract from More’s masterpiece, but readers can access the full text at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2130/pg2130.txt.

UTOPIA, by Sir Thomas More (extract)

“Is not that government both unjust and ungrateful, that is so prodigal of its favours to those that are called gentlemen, or goldsmiths, or such others who are idle, or live either by flattery or by contriving the arts of vain pleasure, and, on the other hand, takes no care of those of a meaner sort, such as ploughmen, colliers, and smiths, without whom it could not subsist? But after the public has reaped all the advantage of their service, and they come to be oppressed with age, sickness, and want, all their labours and the good they have done is forgotten, and all the recompense given them is that they are left to die in great misery. The richer sort are often endeavouring to bring the hire of labourers lower, not only by their fraudulent practices, but by the laws which they procure to be made to that effect, so that though it is a thing most unjust in itself to give such small rewards to those who deserve so well of the public, yet they have given those hardships the name and colour of justice, by procuring laws to be made for regulating them.”

“Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws; yet these wicked men, after they have, by a most insatiable covetousness, divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from that happiness that is enjoyed among the Utopians; for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it, and who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are, indeed, rather punished than restrained by the seventies of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world? Men’s fears, solicitudes, cares, labours, and watching’s would all perish in the same moment with the value of money; even poverty itself, for the relief of which money seems most necessary, would fall. But, in order to grasp this correctly, take one instance:

“Consider any year, that has been so unfruitful that many thousands have died of hunger; and yet if, at the end of that year, a survey was made of the granaries of all the rich men that have hoarded up the corn, it would-be found that there was enough among them to have prevented all that consumption of men that perished in misery; and that, if it had been distributed among them, none would have felt the terrible effects of that scarcity: so easy a thing would it be to supply all the necessities of life, if that blessed thing called money, which is pretended to be invented for procuring them was not really the only thing that obstructed their being procured!