Today I saw a ghost…

In 2006 Germany experienced World Cup fever. Berlin was hosting the football championships and every cafe, bar and restaurant showed the matches on giant TV screens. Round about that time, in a city already full of street art, the work of a new artist caught my eye. They were stencilling hoofprints onto the pavements.

DSC04401

I set up a blog to document them and a Google Map. I found that road railings had been painted red and white like showjumps, with evergreen trees cycle-locked to each side. The hoofprints would approach them then “jump” the rails and disappear. Some street events full of prancing people pretending to be on horseback were staged, though sadly I missed them. I found them in other cities and other countries too – people started to send me photos of them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the time I had no idea how to begin what would become If Wishes Were Horses. It was a very academic text, short on life. The book was born the moment I realised that the graffiti was part of it. Shortly after I finished the book I found an interview with the artist, who said she began the work because she felt that while male sporting passions were celebrated by the World Cup, women’s equally great passion for sports was often belittled. So she covered the city with imaginary horses.

It’s over a decade since I started collecting the hoofprints. Today I saw one I’d never spotted before and which must be one of the last survivors. The ghost print is on the edge of the pond in the Weinbergsweg park in Mitte. A cross country water feature for Berlin’s imaginary herd? Here it is modelled by Otto the dachshund.

IMG_2211

East Berlin’s surfaces are pied with graffiti: spray-painted ‘tags’; paper cut-outs gummed in peeling layers of palimpsest; stencils of hand grenades, bananas, political slogans and dachshunds; giant murals by professional street artists that cover five-storey fire walls. Walking through the same district every day, you notice fresh ones as you might clock a new species of flower emerging from the ground, or tune into a different birdsong <use normal spaced en dash throughout>— a kind of urban nature trail that changes with the seasons. Because I never saw any artist at work, the images seemed to sprout from nowhere, a little bit of subconscious bubbling up to the surface like a rash or a dream.

The hoofs were new.

I first saw them on Kastanienalle — Horse Chestnut Avenue. A trail of white hoof prints the width of my spread hands appeared next to the pavement and walked across the pedestrian crossing. Someone had meticulously cut out the stencils and made their way across the road, spraying one, then another, in a pattern I recognized as a walk: the two left hooves struck the ground close together, the two right hoof prints were spaced wide. One, two, three, four. An invisible pony. When it reached the kerb, it vanished.

A little while later I found a second set, which sauntered across the road at Veteranenstrasse and marched up to a mysterious ‘Equine Institute’, where a bridle hung in the window. There the invisible horse planted its front hooves squarely on the doorstep, as though peering in. A third horse walked clean across the middle of a busy junction outside a police station. Up by the Mauerpark there was a fourth set, which approached the metal railings by the road. A section of the railings had been painted in red-and-white stripes like showjumping poles, and chipboard ‘wings’ had been strapped to the sides. As a finishing touch, two evergreen plants in pots had been placed on either side and fixed to the rails with bicycle locks. The invisible pony cleared the showjump and clattered off across two lanes of traffic and a tramline into the park, where it appeared and disappeared, walking the length of an old stretch of the Wall.

After that it was as though the pony were everywhere, or he had a herd of friends trotting around Berlin at night, always just round the corner, always after I was asleep. I began to look out for the pony every day, to see what he’d been up to the night before. He’d make skittish circles outside a coffee shop, or hobble across Stargarderstrasse like a deer with all four legs roped together.

I couldn’t predict where he would appear next, so I just had to go out and walk, covering miles of Berlin’s broad, grey pavements in the pursuit of the invisible ponies. My friends reported sightings, which I mapped. One horse crossed through the dingy, red-brick cloisters of the Oberbaum bridge, which linked Friedrichshain in the east to Kreuzberg in the west, while another pranced down the red carpet before the stars at the Berlinale. A third pegged across Alexanderplatz and a fourth propped up the counter at a sausage stand, resting one hind hoof.

It was as though a herd of those elusive, magical horses from the pony books I’d read in my childhood had somehow slipped through into my grown-up, urban life. Now they flickered in and out of view, for ever on the next page, like the mysterious Water Horse in Patricia Leitch’s The Black Loch, which surges out of a dark lake at midnight, or golden Flicka, always disappearing over the Wyoming hills, escaping the whirl of a lasso. The spray-painted spoor was the only clue that they had been there.

One night, on the trail of a set of hoof prints on Christinenstrasse, I passed an empty office filled with blue light. There, behind dirty windows and under a bare wire that dangled from the ceiling, was a life-size model of a black horse, who looked out into the street with ears pricked. Behind the rain-streaked glass he seemed absolutely real. I thought he might flare his nostrils and sigh, his sides rising and falling, then turn back to pace the room.

“He had survived.” Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse

coverThe horse on the cover of Ulrich Raulff’s impressive new book is soaring, bridleless, riderless and all but headless. It has the fuzziness of distance but also the heft and hairiness of life; it is both figurative and real. In tracing our extended exit from the long 19th century, when horses powered nations and shaped the way we thought, Farewell to the Horse attempts to ride both these steeds. Equus caballus is, Raulff explains, a ‘living metaphor’ that can ‘carry not only humans and other loads, but also abstract signs and symbols’ and has ‘more meanings than bones’. When we unharnessed the horse from our omnibuses and ploughs and replaced it with trains and tractors, we lost not just horse power but one of the life forces of Western thought as well.

My thoughts on Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Literary Review.

The Transit of Hermes Has Begun

Good luck to long riders Tina Boche, Peter van der Gugten, Zsolt Szabo, and David Wewetzer who have embarked with their Criollo, Haflinger, Kabardin and Karabakh horses and a stallion called Hermes on a ride across Europe organised by artist Ross Birrell. Their journey from Athens to Kassel is an artwork called The Transit of Hermes for, well, the Greek god, but also Hermes the stallion, who is a rare Greek breed called an Arravani. documenta 14 are tracking their progress:

Hermes, then, is a courier, an intermediary, an animal envoy, an angel messenger. But the destination of his message (whatever it may be) is not Kassel. Neither is Athens its point of departure. It is in the relay, in the coexistence of companions: the community of riders and horses who, through the project of the ride, embody “the movement that transports… not toward another thing or another place, but towards its own taking place.”

May 2017 Bring You Obedient White Horses

Therese Renz of the famous Renz circus dynasty, c. 1895. I’ve seen wonderful pictures of her in action (have you see the one where she and her horse are jumping rope?) but didn’t realise that she was a Berliner, and is buried just up the road from me in St Hedwig’s cemetery in Weissensee. She died in 1938More essential to know, she used to tame elephants and was known as “the lady in white” when she performed at the Wintergarten variety theatre, which was destroyed by bombs just six years after Therese left this mortal sawdust ring.

Horse Nation have a brief biography, which makes her sound like a tough old bird, despite a difficult life:

Just as Therese was getting back to business, World War I would disrupt her comeback and leave her penniless, begging on the streets not for her own food, but anything people could spare to keep her two beloved elephants alive. After one died of starvation, she sold the second, her prized elephant “Dicky”, to another circus just to prevent him from suffering the same fate. Therese would yet again be starting over.

When the war ended in 1918, Therese was 60 years old, but that wasn’t going to stop her. She joined a troupe in Vienna in 1923, and continued performing well into her seventies on a mare named “Last Rose”, a fitting final partner.

 

Clever Hans: A Horse, a House and a Little History

Clever Hans: A Horse, a House and a Little History

Screen Shot 2016-09-12 at 12.13.53.png

Wilhelm von Osten was born into the German squirearchy in 1838 and went on to work as a maths teacher. He moved to the eastern Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg in 1866 and purchased a house at 10 Griebenowstraße. A befitted his background, he was a keen rider and huntsman with an appreciation of horses. When one of his carriage horses, Hans, seemed unusually observant of the logisitics of drawing a carriage around the city, he taught the horse to count to five by striking his hoof on the ground. This promising equine savant sadly died at the age of twelve, but his replacement, a black Russian trotter also called Hans, was to become famous worldwide.

Thanks to von Osten’s tuition – which involved a lot of carrots and bread – “Clever” Hans developed an extraordinary array of abilities. He would count by pounding his right hoof on the ground and concluding when he reached the correct number with a strike of his left fore. He nodded, shook his head, and moved his head to indicate up, down, right or left. His talents included

  • the ability to count up to 100 (sometimes higher) and work on calculations involving six decimal places;
  • the ability to spell (where “A” = one hoof tap, and so on);
  • the ability to change common fractures to decimals and vice versa;
  • the ability to read German, printed or handwritten (but only lower case);
  • an understanding of the value of all German coins;
  • an understanding of the calendar;
  • the ability to tell the time on a watch;
  • the ability to recognise people he knew from old photos;
  • the ability to identify musical notes and chords and whether or not they were “pleasant”;
  • the ability to pick out groups of people among the spectators – say, women wearing spectacles or men in hats, or even children climbing on nearby rooftops.

 One observer described von Osten as “extremely patient and at the same time highly irascible” and “fanatic in his conviction” that Hans was “capable of inner speech”. Von Osten tried to draw attention to his horse’s talents by posting advertisements in the military press. He gave exhibitions of Hans’ skills in the yard of 10 Griebenowstraße, and many came to watch and try to work out if the horse was really all his owner claimed. Word spread and the man and his horse became a global phenomenon.

Hans was turned into toys, featured on product labels and postcards and written into the lyrics of vaudeville songs. Not unlike his owner, he was also prone to stubborness – he had little respect for those who did not handle him with the same confidence as von Osten. He also bit, which perhaps isn’t that astonishing given the number of treats he’d grown used to expect from humans.

One local journalist, Fedor Freund, pointed out a curious aspect of the horse’s spelling: it was not merely phonetic. When von Osten read out the name “Treskow” to him he spelled it correctly, although it was pronounced “Tresko”. But though many sceptics visited and examined Hans, plenty of prominent and educated men admitted defeat. Head Berlin zoo keeper Ludwig Heck, whom you may have come across in The Age of the Horse, was one of those unable to determine Hans’ secret, even after a year and a half of concentrated study. Von Osten’s horse, it was believed, was intellectually “at about the stage of development of a child of 13 or 14 years.”

It was a team led by psychologist Oskar Pfungst that finally broke the spell in 1907. Hans was not “capable of inner speech” (well, not in any provable way). He was simply watching for changes in the posture and expression of whoever set him each task, whether it was von Osten or an independent investigator. Hans was “clever” because he had noticed that when von Osten relaxed, he only had to strike the ground with his left hoof to finish “counting” and then he would be rewarded. And of course, von Osten relaxed whenever Hans reached the right answer or sum. Presumably, over time the horse didn’t even need a carrot as a reward for this. He was adept in one language – that of the body.

A few years after his debunking, von Osten died, and Hans – rather like Black Beauty – had a series of new owners. This was a time of transition for horses – the beginning of the end of the use of horses for public and private transport – and the odds of ending up as sausage were high. Hans was conscripted into the army at the outbreak of World War One. He vanishes off the records in 1916 – killed in action, perhaps, or victim of disease or the desperation of soldiers.

When I was researching images for the Power section of The Age of the Horse I kept coming across black and white pictures like this one of families in inner courtyards in Western cities, proudly showing off their working horses. Our great-great grandparents often lived alongside their equine workmates or metres away from the mews and multi-storey stables that kept nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cities functioning. Berlin was no exception, and it’s still possible to see some traces of long-since demolished stables, like the parallel metal tracks for cart wheels that are laid in the entryways to some buildings from the period. The old brewery near me hasn’t produced beer in decades, but you can take special tours around the underground stables, which have been preserved. I’m told that one of the multi-storey stables – repurposed as housing – is still standing, but have been unable to locate it. When I realised that von Osten’s house was just ten minutes’ walk from my own, I set out to see if there were any traces of Hans left over.

I live in what’s known as an “alt bau” or “old building” very like 10 Griebenowstraße. Berlin expanded hugely from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and the same basic building unit was thrown up around the city. It consisted of five storeys (any higher and the fire brigade could not reach the upper floors) around a square courtyard, with cellars, high ceilings and large windows. In areas like Kreuzberg, Schoneberg and Charlottenburg, these buildings are hefty and grand, as Christopher Isherwood described them in the Weimar years, “shabby monumental safes” with “top-heavy balconied façades”.

In Prenzlauer Berg, these “rent barracks” were a little slapdash as the area’s population tended towards the working class. The front would have perhaps some stucco for the better off, like von Osten, and the wings and rear of the courtyard would be plainer.The courtyards sometimes contained small industrial plants, stables or other outbuildings. Often there was more than one courtyard; the record is seven, for a building around the corner from Clever Hans’ home on Kastanienallee, a model of which can be seen in the Deutsches Historisches Museum. These yards got progressively smaller and darker; many were demolished in slum clearances just a few years after they were constructed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Number 10 Griebenowstraße is on a corner of sorts near the Zionskirche. When I peeked into the yard I found a large shared garden, bike park and recycling area that was shared between an entire block of alt baus; only one outbuilding was still standing and, when I checked a map from 1895, it was impossible to see what else might have stood there, or if there were further inner courtyards. The outbuilding did not resemble anything that appears in the backdrop of the images of von Osten and Clever Hans. The building has been renovated with plain plaster and there’s not even a plaque to mark the story.

In his report on Hans, Oskar Pfungst concluded that “the horse’s ability to perceive movements greatly exceeds that of the average man.”  What interests me most is what he went on to say, because it’s one of those extracts that, like the ancient Taoist book, “Horses’ Hoofs”, can sound strikingly modern: What results, he asked, might a more horse-centric form of training and upkeep yield? And how could this benefit the horses themselves?

Our horses are, as a rule, sentenced to an especially dull mode of life. Chained in stalls (and usually dark stalls at that,) during three-fourths of their lives, and more than any other domestic animal, enslaved for thousands of years by reins and whip, they have become estranged from their natural impulses, and owing to continued confinement they may perhaps have suffered even in their sensory life. A gregarious animal, yet kept constantly in isolation, intended by nature to range over vast areas, yet confined to his narrow courtyard, and deprived of opportunity for sexual activity,—he has been forced by a process of education to develop along lines quite opposite to his native characteristics. Nevertheless, I believe that it is very doubtful if it would have been possible by other methods, even, to call forth in the horse the ability to think. Presumably, however, it might be possible, under conditions and with methods of instruction more in accord with the life-needs of the horse, to awaken in a fuller measure those mental activities which would be called into play to meet those needs.

Hitler’s Missing Horses Found Hidden in Rhineland Warehouse

The German tabloid Bild just broke a story about the huge statues of horses made for Hitler by the sculptor Josef Thorak. I’d just come across Thorak’s work while looking into the symbolic role of horses under the Nazis, and seen images of his workshop, and the hefty Aryan steeds he turned out. Thorak was the sculptor chosen by Albert Speer and Hitler to decorate their gross new capital city of “Germania” with its colossal domed hall and endless triumphal avenues.

I didn’t know that two bronze “Pacing Horses” by Thorak used to stand in front of the Hitler’s chancellery in the centre of Berlin, in a place now given over to DDR-era housing and a brand new shopping mall. Bild found an image of one of the statues in place, here, with the original piece in German. Getty has a shot of the Austrian sculptor in 1942, sketching a horse from life.

According to Bild, after the fall of Berlin and the destruction of the chancellery, the horses were taken to the small town of Eberswalde, just up the road from me. At least, this is where they were next seen, in 1950, on the playing field of the local Russian barracks. Over the years they were climbed on by kids, painted gold, shot at with guns, lost their tails and had them fixed again.

They were officially re-identified by the art historian Magdalena Busshart in 1988, but weeks after she published her findings in early 1989, they disappeared. Bild speculates that the sculptures were sold by either the Russian Army or the DDR authorities (or both, working together) in order to raise some desperately needed hard Western currency. Nobody heard anything of them until two years ago, when Busshart was told that if she paid a large amount of money, she would be told their whereabouts.

This week police busting an art-theft ring found the pacing horses in a warehouse in Bad Dürkheim in western Germany – a long way from Eberswalde. They were accompanied by two Klimsch sculptures from the Reichs Chancellery gardens and a four-story high granite relief by Arno Breker. Apparently the horses have been on offer on the blackmarket for between 1.5 and 4 million euros in recent years. Now a decision has to be made as to whether they belong to the federal government or to Thorak’s estate.