Master of Horse by Wally Ballach

Wally Ballach may not be a household name, but within the walls of my family home, he is a legend. I didn’t just grow up around his art; it grew up with me and is part of who I am. One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received is getting to know Wally this past year. I’m honoured to call him my friend, and this post is dedicated to him.

We all know the story of The Little Drummer Boy, but what happened to him after he left the holy place? It is conceivable that Wally Ballach’s Master of Horse (1986) picks up where the classic Christmas story left off, only to take a dark turn.

It goes back to Letter of the Master of Horse written in 1973 by the Candian poet Gary Geddes. Set in the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors pillaged Central and South America, Geddes’ words illustrate another timeless tale that we’ve all heard before – the corruption of power. For Ballach, it paints a picture that “possesses many intriguing little secrets,” ones that I will unwrap here. 

In Ancient Rome, the Dictator’s main lieutenant was known as The Master of the Horse. Pictured here as The Little Drummer Boy, with the stern look and motivated stance of a “leader ready to bark out orders,” his commands are undermined without drumsticks. Not only is he unable to march to the beat of his own drum, but so are his underlings. Maybe the boy doesn’t even see that his drumsticks are missing. The wind-up key at his hip further suggests that he’s at the mercy of someone else. His allegiance is blindly loyal, offering a gift that looks the other way, funny because the Christmas carol is about giving a gift that you can’t see.

Next to the boy is a pull toy horse often mistaken for a Doberman Pinscher. Likened to the Trojan Horse of Greek mythology, it represents the duplicitous nature of colonization. Promises are hollow, and concerns fall on deaf ears, or, if you’re the horse-dog, no ears. Whether equine or canine, it’s being led on wheels and not by The Little Drummer Boy…

Echoing the theme of “master-men stooping to bestial levels through their power” is a poster of Francis Bacon’s Two Figures (1953). It’s strategically hung on the wall behind the horse to intimate “man’s rape of and cruelty to the animal kingdom,” which Geddes recounts in harrowing detail. When Bacon painted Two Figures, gay sex was illegal and as abhorrent as bestiality is regarded today. Instead, the artist cited male wrestling magazines as his inspiration to conceal the obscenity. 

The wallpaper corresponds to the Letter of the Master of Horse, written in Egyptian hieroglyphs – a pictorial language that displayed their deities in the forms of animals. To all but the most learned Egyptologist, it is indecipherable, yet to the most imaginative, these walls could talk like an inkblot from the Rorschach Test. The slave in bowed supplication is either appealing to the powers that be or in reverence to nature’s majesty. Perhaps this is where the story began, worshipping the natural world, something that has been perverted over time.

I like to think that if you zoomed out of Master of Horse, someone was standing over it and manipulating everything – the boy, the horse, the poster, the wallpaper as if it were a dollhouse. The use of toys contrasts the innocence of child’s play with the depravity of men in power. Someone larger is pulling the strings or turning the key. They are a master of disguise, skilled at hiding their true intentions. 

I would end this off sarcastically with, “Sounds like Christmas to me,” but I fear that’s too cynical. What I was going to say is: Master of Horse is perfect for Christmas because it teaches us about who we are and the world around us. And that, my friends, is a gift that gives all life long.