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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Olympic Art

Greek Wrestlers in the Ancient Olympic Games, Tom Lovell
The year was 1932; the painting
was At the Seaside of Arild by
the Swedish artist David Wallin.
Today we think of the Olympic Games now taking place in Rio de Janeiro as being entirely about athletics. Over the years since 1896, various competitions have been added and subtracted but the games, have remained essentially amateur athletic competitions. However, it might surprise some to realize that from 1912 until 1948, the Olympics involved competition in the fine arts as well--architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and literature. Originally little more than a sideshow, but by 1924 some 193 artists entered the competition. Like the athletic competition, gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded. In 1928, over 1,100 works were exhibited. However, as time went on, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began to realize that, at least insofar as the fine arts were concerned, most of the competitors were anything but amateurs. Thus, after the 1948 Olympics in London, the fine arts once more, became a sideshow--an art exhibition running concurrently with the games. Yet, whether a competition or an exhibition, the Olympic games have continued to inspire a multitude of mostly painters and graphic designers in the years since.
The Knockdown, 1932, Mahonri Young,
the gold medal winner in sculpture.
Without a doubt the most visible work of Olympic art is that of the Olympic Rings logo (below), designed in 1912 by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, the Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, to include the six colors (five rings plus the white background) found in the flags of all participating countries. He won no gold medal for his design. Since he was the founder, he was probably ruled ineligible.
The Olympic Rings, 1912, Pierre de Coubertin
It's unknown whether the Greeks, when the began the ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC, included an art competition; but we do know they included foot races, wrestling, horse and chariot racing, and something called, "pankration," which could best be thought of as plain, old-fashioned fighting--hand to hand combat with virtually no rules. The athletes used boxing and wrestling but also kicking and holds, locks and chokes on the ground. The only things not allowed were biting and gouging out the opponent's eyes. Oh, and they did all this stark naked as well. Sounds like WWF on Saturday nights (except for the naked part, thank God). Alas, the Greeks left behind no images of the sport such as seen in their ceramic pottery foot race (below).
In some ways, the games have changed very little...except
that back then, Nike was only a Greek goddess.
Olympic posters have come
a long way since 1896.
Compare this one to those
Although there is no longer an art competition, Olympic art continues to thrive, basically in three categories--posters, mascots, and arch-itecture. They are all three very much inter-twined. The sale of Olympic posters and stuf-fed toy mascots helps pay for the Olympic architecture. Inasmuch as the first modern Olympic games were held in Athens, Greece, starting in 1896, the poster for the event prominently emphasized classical Greek arch-itecture and the Greek origin of the games in 776 BC. The Olympics returned to Athens 108 years later in 2004. The example (left) and those below also illustrate a visual history of graphic design styles over that past 120 years.

Olympic posters tend to reflect the art and culture of the host nation.
Waldi the Daschund, the first official
Olympic mascot. He never made it as
far as to become a costume at the
1972 Munich games.
Without doubt, the most fascinating, not to mention amusing, aspect of Olympic art is that of the Olympic mascots. Although there had been a few unofficial Olympic mascots down through the years, the first official critter was Waldi the dachshund in 1972 at the Munich Olympic Games. The real art. insofar as Olympic mascots are con-cerned, is not in dreaming up and sketching out some cute, cuddly little animal (usually) but in converting such images to costumes that real, live, people can wear in the heat of the summer without suffering hyperthermia. Some have come to include battery operated ventilation devices.

Some are cute, some highly creative, others quite popular with the crowds. Most, however are, quite literally, dumb.
Olympic architecture has its beginnings usually about eight years before the games for which it becomes such an integral part. Almost as soon as the IOC announces its choice for a host city the best architectural minds are at work dreaming up stadiums, guest relations, athlete housing, transportation, and security facilities integrated into what's come to be called the Olympic Village. (Olympic city would be more like it.) One such architect, Jan Wils, even won an Olympic gold medal for his stadium design for the Amsterdam games in 1928. Still today, the 64,000-seat stadium stands as one of the finest ever built for the games. By the way, the first modern-day Olympic stadium is also still in use in Athens. And atop Mount Olympus, the footprint of the first Olympic stadium with his sloped, grassy seating area, can still be discerned.

Rio de Janeiro's Olympic Village is situated on a triangular
peninsula jutting into the city's massive harbor.
French street artist JR designed and engineered the two giant athletes, which are part of the artist’s ongoing ‘inside out’ project.
They are made out of scaffolding and are currently on
display in Rio de Janeiro.

And what would the Olympics be without the
art of LeRoy Neiman? We're about to find out.
He died in June, 2012, shortly before the start
of the London Olympics.

Mount Olympus in sand


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