Dawn Adès, art historian, on the racehorse, Frankel
GB Tell me why you chose Frankel.
DA I find horses generally completely enchanting and I’ve always loved them. I love going to the races and I find watching the racehorses is extremely moving and Frankel is just an extraordinary creature. He would just glide away from all the others and show such power and beauty.
GB Would Frankel still be as beautiful to you if he wasn’t a winner?
DA No. Of course he’s beautiful as most horses are, even great clod-hopping cart horses, but the reason I chose him is because he was this particular kind of winner. Not just by a head, he left the others standing. I found the way he had this exceptional capacity to surge forward extremely beautiful. So yes, he had to be a winner.
GB Do you realise that this is the most expensive thing anyone has chosen so far? He’s worth £100 million!
DA (laughs) I wasn’t thinking about a relationship between beauty and money! I’ve never had any financial link to horses so that side of it doesn’t mean much to me.
GB Frankel is interesting because he represents natural beauty but is also in a way man-made because he’s a thoroughbred.
DA Yes, I love that he’s a part of nature but I’m sure there is a great deal of artifice in the breeding of racehorses. One of the slightly sad things is that a lot of them are beginning to look identical because there are so few lines. If you go back to the original ones in the 18th century, the Godolphin Arabian was a really beautiful horse and even now there is still a different category of racing for these Arabs. Thank goodness it’s still unpredictable though. Frankel’s children may not be great winners though he’ll still be incredibly expensive at stud. It’s reassuring, that you can’t engineer it completely.
Sometimes you see horses walking around before the race looking frightfully unhappy and nervous. Frankel was always so calm and at ease, he seemed to be a rather different sort of horse.
GB Do you think the beauty you see in a racehorse is different from the kind of beauty you see in art?
DA Not really, no. I agree with Hogarth about beauty: in The Analysis of Beauty he wrote that there are certain lines and forms that are beautiful in both nature and art, and also that every element of something must be perfectly fit for purpose. So with a racehorse, everything from the slimness of the legs to the set of the head is appropriate for that particular somewhat useless sport!
GB Did that apply to Hogarth’s paintings?
DA Yes, you can see it in Hogarth’s paintings. What he thinks encapsulated beautiful form is the serpentine line, which is spun into three dimensions so it becomes a kind of cone. It gives variety. He’s the person who began attacking the classical ideal of beauty. Hogarth liked variety and difference and contrast. You can see in his paintings that the figures are arranged in terms of a serpentine line on the canvas. So starting with this sort of analysis of beauty I ended up with Frankel. Hogarth is quirky but still so convincing. His treatise on beauty is not a watertight argument but he anticipates the shift to the picturesque and the arrival of the sublime. He thinks a country-dance is as beautiful as a statue of Apollo. I like that democratising aspect.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
DA I think it’s terribly personal and I’m not sure that I would be consistent. I think it can be applied to anything – in nature or art. Coming back to the 18th century, I like that they developed a whole language to discuss beauty. You couldn’t just say something was beautiful, you had to say precisely why, what system of the beautiful you were thinking about. Nowadays we don’t have such a developed language to express the qualities in the object or the perceptions we might have of them. I wouldn’t say that certain types of art are beautiful that I think are fantastic as art. It goes back to Burke writing about the sublime. He contrasts the sublime to the beautiful. Beauty is something that appeals to your immediate senses and is sexy and seductive and lovely. The sublime is something that terrifies you. You don’t want to touch it. It threatens and overawes and frightens you. That basic distinction is obviously very schematic, but it does sort of hold. Lots of art today is sublime but not beautiful. But I think a link between the sublime and the beautiful could be some kind of thrill – and that’s what Frankel is.