Finding the 1998 book Le sport dans l’art by Jean Monneret in a charity shop proved an unexpected prize. The concise volume – it weighs in at under 200 pages – presents a brief survey of a subject most people rarely consider. It covers the depiction of sport from ancient to modern times.
The content includes diagrams of an Egyptian tomb painting showing women doing gymnastics and participating in a ball game, as well as classical portrayals of gladiators, discus throwers and wrestlers.
It also provides a selection of art work from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Somewhat more recent European developments range from a 17th C version of Char à voile (land sailing) to racket sports, horse and bicycle races, and field sports like rugby.
The names of a few well known artists pepper the survey. Paintings by Manet, Degas and Van Gogh accompany a 13th C drawing of wrestlers by Villard de Honnencourt.
From the evidence Monneret assembled it can be seen that sport doesn’t just function as a leisure pursuit, but is also equated with developments in technology and war. But in the 20th C the quality of the representations dwindles. Outside of a few visually sturdy paintings by the likes of Edward Hopper, Nicolas de Staël and David Hockey, the work turns illustrative. This denouement raises questions about sport as the focus of contemporary art work.
Perhaps the influence of abstract art prompted artists to sideline the topic, but with some personal reflection and a bit of research a different picture soon emerged. Brian Jungen‘s aboriginal masks made of Air Jordan shoes and his ice hockey goalie masks emblazoned with NorthWest Coast aboriginal designs, for example, stand out.
Then I also recalled seeing Ann Hamilton‘s installation ‘a round’, which referenced a boxing club she had visited in Toronto. Here walls composed of stacked grappling/throwing dummies encircled the viewer.
There have also been a couple of excellent overviews. In 2012 The Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow (MOCAK) presented Sport in Art as part of an ongoing series of exhibitions that links art with some of civilisations most important themes. The artists included in the exhibition ranged from Leni Riefenstahl‘s 1938 film Olympia to Justyna Koeke‘s humorous sculpture Showing Muscles 2009.
An excerpt from the introductory wall text reads: “…sport is an expression of our dissatisfaction of ourselves and of our dream of human potential.” The multi-faceted approach delves into sport’s many aspects. The exhibition can also still be experienced through the museum’s website, which offers a virtual tour of the exhibition.
In 2013 Buffalo, New York’s CEPA Gallery presented an overview that examined the social importance of sport and its use as a rehabilitative tool, the phenomena of sports tourism and the manner in which it communicated through various forms of media.
In addition to photographic and film works The Art of Sport also included a number of interactive media works and live events. For example, Mitch Miller‘s Natural Selection was made up of Styrofoam sculptures that functioned as targets. Using bows and arrows, viewers were able to shoot at them.
Matthew Bakkom looked at the competitive tendencies of the avant-garde through Bowling for Dali. Taking place in a bowling centre, the tournament allowed members of the public to compete in teams that pitted the various proponents of the Surrealist movement against each other.
And, as a last mention, Bradley Beesley‘s 2009 documentary Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo detailed an annual rodeo held in an Oklahoma penitentiary. The bulk of the competitors happen to be female inmates.
Sport in art: certainly not a defunct topic.
Brueghel, Pieter the Elder: Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, Web Gallery of Art
Hamilton, Ann: a round 1993, The Powerplant
Fauguet, Richard: Sans Titre (Table de Ping Pong) 2000, Galerie Art Concept
Bakkom, Matthew: Bowling for Dali 2013 CEPA Gallery