Art of gold
The London Olympics of 1948 saw the oldest ever Olympian collect his gold medal, at the age of 73. But John Copley wasn’t a septuagenarian heptathlete or an age-defying pole-vaulter. His medal was for etching and he was just one of a raft of medal-winning Olympic artists.
Until 1952, fine arts stood podium to podium with sporting events in the Olympics and a competitor’s way with a paintbrush, chisel or turn of phrase was considered as worthy of
recognition as their speed over 100 metres. “Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, believed the Games would not be complete without including art competitions,” says Richard Stanton, author of ‘The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions’, the first and only English-language book on the subject. “There is only one difference between our Olympiads and plain sporting championships,” said Coubertin at the turn of the century, “and it is precisely the contests of art as they existed in the Olympiads of Ancient Greece, where sport exhibitions walked in equality with artistic exhibitions.”
Art and culture didn’t gain instant traction in the Olympic arena. The first three modern Games were art-free, but Coubertin’s persistence paid off and 1912 saw the award of the first of 151 medals that would be given out for architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture over the next 40 years.
The only rule for entrants was that sport must be the subject of their piece. Artistic winners included Jean Jacoby – for his stirring painting of a rugby match – Riccardo Barthelemy for his composition “Olympic Triumphal March” and John Russell Pope, designer of the Jefferson Memorial, who won a silver in 1932 for his architectural sketches of a gym. Even Baron de Coubertin himself got in on the act: his ‘Ode To Sport’ won him his very own gold medal in literature, although the work was submitted under a pseudonym and the jury members were supposedly unaware of the true author.
The adjudicating process seemed equally scattergun, with judges sometimes awarding a silver but no gold, or deeming entire categories so lacking in quality as to not have a medal-winner among them. The literature competition was split into three subcategories – lyric, dramatic and epic – in 1928 before being rejoined in 1932 and split again in 1936.
Despite this the art contests proved popular with audiences, with an average of 60,000 visitors to the events. Even athletes embraced the challenge – American Walter Winans bagged a total of three Olympic medals, two for shooting and one for ‘An American Trotter’ – a 20-inch-tall bronze sculpture of a horse and trap.
In the early days of the contests it seemed only the artistic establishment were immune to the charm of the Olympics. Before the art competitions took their bow at the 1912 Games in Stockholm the Swedish Society of Arts lobbied the IOC to change their mind, declaring that an art competition devalued the creative process. The sport-only rule also seemed to dissuade prominent artists from taking part and the big names of the time refused to enter – robbing us of the prospect of Picasso going toe to toe with Matisse for a place on the podium.
“Whenever art and sport are mentioned together it usually raises an eyebrow,” says Stanton. “For some the two are an anathema to each other. For others it paints a more thoughtful landscape.”
One man who saw the potential of the competitions to paint a certain landscape was Joseph Goebbels. When the Games came to Berlin in 1936, Hitler’s minister for public education and propaganda not only defended the arts competitions but lobbied Coubertin – who had continued to serve as an honorary head of the IOC following his retirement as president in 1924 – to increase their scope to include ‘Works of the Screen’, dance and handicraft in gold and silver (although not in bronze). Coubertin refused, but it did little to stem Goebbels’s enthusiasm and although his plan for a life-sized reproduction of the Temple of Zeus designed to serve as the entrance to the art exhibitions was deemed too expensive, he did organise a closing ceremony in which the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed several of the medal-winning music compositions from years gone by.
The 1936 Olympics are widely regarded as the Nazi Games, and the art competitions certainly proved a rich hunting ground for the party. Perhaps aided by the refusal of many Western artists to take part for ideological reasons, Germany won 12 of the 36 medals available, including five golds: no other country managed more than one.
When World War II began, the Games took a back seat and were suspended in 1940 and 1944. When they returned, art was still on the agenda, with the major debate reserved for who should take part (Germany and Japan were banned, the Soviet Union declined the invitation) rather than the areas of competition. And then, in 1949, the art competitions came up against their greatest threat – the Olympic ideal of amateurism.
“Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, believed the Games would not be
complete without including art competitions”
By 1949, American Avery Brundage, a staunch advocate of the amateur ideal, had risen to the post of vice president of the IOC. Despite winning an honorable mention himself in the 1932 literature category (for a piece entitled ‘The Significance of Amateur Sport’), Brundage believed the art competitions ran contrary to the ideology of the Olympics. Brundage and several other senior IOC members argued that a medal-winning piece of art increased in value, thus profiting the artist and undermining the philosophy behind the rings. When a measure was approved that banned the awarding of medals for art, the cultural Olympic dream was all but over – and the 1952 Olympic art competition was little more than a glorified sport-themed exhibition.
Despite losing their gong-winning status, art and the Olympics remain bedfellows. In 1992 Barcelona introduced the concept of the Cultural Olympiad, a festival celebrating local and international culture. The idea was that the Olympic fan could wander between a handball semi-final, a Kahlo exhibition and a Handel concert. The concept stuck and the Cultural Olympiad has been adopted in all subsequent games. But do sport and art really belong together? Very much, says Stanton. “All we know about ancient Olympia and most of human history we only know because art is how we record all that is human. Consider the modern Olympics. No pageantry? No opening ceremonies? No pomp and circumstance? No music? As long as sport is human, art will be its companion.”
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