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Hong Kong Museum of Art's 'Story of the Horse'

About 40 exhibits using the horse as a subject are on display at the Hong Kong Museum of Art from today (June 27) until December 28.

The exhibition, 'Story of the Horse', features artifacts of different dates and in various medium ranging from Chinese pottery, bronzes, bamboo carvings, Chinese calligraphy and painting, historical pictures to modern art selected from the collections of the Museum of Art. Divided into four sections: the function of the horse in ancient China; the literati taste in Chinese paintings of horses; the horse motif and its symbolic meanings; and the horse in modern art, the exhibition reviews the value of the horse and how its artistic representation evolves over time.

Highlight exhibits of this exhibition include a horse in "Sancai" glaze of the Tang dynasty, an engraving "Forcing the Encampment at Gadan-Ola" by Giuseppe Castiglione of the Qing dynasty, a bamboo carving "Monkey on a Horse Carved in the Round" of the Kangxi period of the Qing dynasty, and an ink painting "Horse under a Tree" by Zhang Mu of the Qing dynasty. Horse paintings by Gao Qifeng and by Xu Beihong, and a digital print "The Chinese Cyclical Years" by local artist Wong Chung-yu are also on display.

As early as the prehistoric age, tribes living in the Eurasian grasslands hunted horses for meat and milk. The horse is a docile animal. Its physical stamina enables long distance travelling, while its great speed and power is a necessary condition for battles. Domestication of the horse begun in China as early as in the Shang dynasty (c.16th-11th century BC). In addition to riding, horses were also used for pulling carts and carrying soldiers in chariots, as evidenced by unearthed carts and various harness relics.

Horses in the Tang dynasty (618-907) were mostly of excellent breeds introduced from the western regions. There were well-trained war horses, post horses, riding horses, and horses for ceremonial performances. Horse riding became a form of entertainment in itself. The polo game came from Persia also became very popular among the nobles.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), the army attached great importance to combat skills, such as horseback shooting and lassoing. The production and decoration of the harness were of very high standard. With the invention of weapons such as the firelock and the shotgun, and the introduction of more advanced weaponry from Western Europe during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the role of the cavalry and the horse in battles started to dwindle. The nature of the combat also changed.

The image of the horse became the theme of the painted works during the Tang dynasty. Painters such as Han Gan, painted horses of various builds with the royal glamour typical of the Tang era. In the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), Li Gonglin depicted the horse with fine lines rather than strokes. From that time onward, the subjects of horse paintings were no longer confined to farming and hunting. Instead, they became an expression of the painters' state of mind. In the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) the great painter Zhao Mengfu along with his clan advocated "paying tribute to Tang". They focused on the horses' unique features and spirituality. During the Qing dynasty, the horse paintings by painters of the Shanghai School were of a perfect blend of the traditional literati spirit, Western techniques, and the spirituality and the taste of the middle class.

The horse has long been one of the favourite decorative motifs adopted by generations of Chinese artists. The image of the horse was used as early as the jade horse excavated from the Fu Hao Tomb in Henan, dated to the Shang dynasty. It appears in the patterns depicting battles on bronzes of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). The horses of the terracotta army in the Tomb of Qinshihuangdi (the first Qin emperor) (221-210 BC) are as vivid as real horses. During the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), decorative patterns with horses and chariots were often seen on pottery vessels, brick, stone inscriptions, and frescoes, and the themes were usually about social activities such as horse or chariot riding, marching, and horseback bands. They mirrored the daily life of the noble classes as well as the fashion and customs at the time. The rich colours and robust body of the "sancai" horse often remind people of the power and glory of the Tang dynasty. The image of the "Horse on the Sea" was often seen in many jade carvings or porcelain ware during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was especially adopted as the central motif on the rank badge on the ceremonial robes of junior military officials. The horse carries auspicious meanings. The motif of a monkey standing on horseback is a homophonic pun for "a quick promotion", which was often seen on porcelain, jade, or bamboo vessels during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The horse painting approach has become diversified. Gao Qifeng, one of the "Three Masters of Lingnan School" studied painting in Tokyo, which had a great influence to his style in painting horse. Another master Xu Beihong was particularly fond of painting horse. Xu studied in France and was an advocate of realism. He excelled in capturing the movement and the spirit of horses. The beauty of the horse is deeply admired by Hong Kong artists. The horse in Hong Kong art may be travelling across time and space and appear in ancient scenes. Or it may be transformed into a humorous figure or an icon of the ideals. In some cases, it serves as a means to express avant-garde ideas.

The Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Sunday to Wednesday and Fridays, and from 10am to 8pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Thursdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

For enquiries, call 2721 0116 or visit the Museum of Art's website at .

Ends/Friday, June 27, 2008

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