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Artists Among Athletes, Competing for Gold


 

Berlin Olympics Art Competitions The international jury judging works of art submitted for the Berlin Olympics, 1936

Which contemporary artist would win an Olympics gold medal in painting or sculpture if competing today? The idea is not so far-fetched, as art competitions were included alongside sporting events in the Olympic Games from 1912 to 1948. Just as in the athletic events, outstanding artists were awarded medals for the best literature, painting, sculpture, architecture and music composition.

Founder of Modern OlympicsBaron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, pushed the idea to incorporate arts competitions, inspired by the ancient Greek Olympic games which included singing, heralding and musical performance. Furthermore, de Coubertin (pictured left) felt strongly about differentiating the Olympics with world championship sporting matches, according to an NPR interview with Olympic historian John MacAloon. The only book published in English on the subject, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions by historian Richard Stanton, elaborates that de Coubertin thought the competitions should “embrace the entire known world” and challenge both body and mind.

Thus de Coubertin fought for arts competitions among his Organizing Committee colleagues until they were included the Stockholm Games of 1912. One hundred years later, as the world tunes into London 2012, we watch the gladiators of our time finishing races in record time, jumping distances seemingly impossible, and contorting their lithe gymnast bodies in unimaginable ways. But how could something as subjective as the visual arts be considered and judged? Jean Jacoby

The criteria set by the International Olympic Committee necessitated that the artworks “bear a definite relationship to the Olympic concept.” Sculpture, for example, depicted athletes with the muscles of Greek gods, or musical compositions were envisioned as the theme songs for sporting events. The latter entries were limited to one-hour, and entries for literature could not exceed 20,000 words. The judges, after all, had limited time in their schedules.

Under this criteria, artists presented their work in hope of judges deeming them artistic champions. Jean Jacoby, from Luxembourg, is the only artist to receive two gold medals in the Olympic art competitions - in 1924 and 1928 (pictured above right) - making him the most successful Olympic artist ever. Two examples also exist of multi-talented medalists who managed to win both arts and sports competitions: Hungarian Alfred Hajos took home two gold medals for freestyle swimming from the Athens Games of 1896, and thirty years later at the 1924 Paris games, he won silver in the architecture competition for his design of the Budapest Swimming Center. American Walter Winans, the second example, won the silver medal in the team running deer shooting competition and a gold medal in 1912 for his bronze sculpture An American Trotter (pictured below left).

An American Trotter by Walter WinansThe most interesting art winner, however, was Pierre de Coubertin himself. Apparently he was afraid of too few entries in these early years, so he submitted a poem in two languages and won a gold medal in 1912 Summer Olympics under a pseudonym. (Read Ode Au Sport here). His identity remained unknown until his death, leaving us forever wondering if the competition was fixed. However, the fact that German entrants won more art medals than any other country at the 1936 Berlin Games, and American medalists dominated the art competitions at the 1932 Los Angeles Games speaks of the credibility of the judging.

With considerable debate about judging and submission criteria, few artists wanted to compete in the Olympic competitions at all. As John MacAloon explained, “True art is art for art's sake. How could this art for sport's sake really be authentic? [...] So the artists were afraid that they would be judged by people from sport, and the sports people were afraid that they'd get submissions from artists that really were not deeply connected with the theme.” Successful artists did not want to compete for fear of damaging their reputation.Los Angeles Art Olympics

The blatant unpopularity of these competitions among artists results in a list (see chart below) of almost 150 medal winners that frankly, few people today would recognize. There were few exceptions, such as architect of the Jefferson Memorial John Russell Pope, who won a silver medal for his design of Yale University’s gymnasium. Italian sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti and Dutch painter Isaac Israels are other notable medalists.

Nonetheless, local audiences enjoyed these events, with almost 400,000 people visiting the 1155 international entries hosted in 15 galleries of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art during the 1932 games (pictured above right). As a reference, the figure is approximately 6 times the attendees of this year’s Art Basel fair in Switzerland, which coincidentally, is often dubbed “the Olympics of the art world”. However, the difficulty of creating an interesting artwork inspired by the Olympics and the problematic judging caused the organizing committees to do away with these art competitions after the 1948 games. Organizers report an offering of 12,000 cultural programs to complement London 2012, but the Olympic art competitions of the past remain forgotten.

 

Written by MutualArt's Christine Bednarz

See the top-ranking artistic countries:

Olympic Art Medal Winners

 

 
 

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