With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics kicking off today, most people’s minds are turned to thoughts of curling, figure skating, bobsledding. But did you know that once upon a time, the Olympics included art competitions? Yup. From 1912 to 1948, awards were given out for works of art in roughly five different categories — architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture — for artworks inspired by sport.
Oils and reliefs of muscular men, symphonies devoted to the joys of athleticism — how grand! How inspirational! Except that the Olympic art competitions seem to have been something of a mess. Things got off to a bad start, when a last-minute location change forced organizers to cancel the intended first art competitions, in 1908. In 1912, the art games finally came to fruition, but only 35 people entered. They finally took off in 1928, with more than 1,000 artworks, but then dwindled considerably over the next two decades.
What’s more, every single time the Olympic art competitions actually took place, the rules changed. The event began with the five categories mentioned above. Then, gradually, all of the categories splintered into more categories, with hazy guidelines and much overlap. Architecture became architecture and town planning, while sculpture turned into statues and medals/reliefs, then further subdivided into statues, medals, and reliefs. Painting has the most absurd history, as it became drawings, graphic arts, and paintings, until it became paintings, prints, and watercolors/drawings, followed by prints changing back to graphic art, and then an entirely new overhaul to applied arts and crafts, engravings/etchings, and oils/watercolors. Got that?
As for the art, well, it doesn’t seem to have been very good (with exceptions) — a likely consequence of the need to focus on sports, as well as the rule that all submitting artists must be amateurs (which used to be the way for athletes, too). Notably, the judges had a regular habit of declining to actually give out medals. As critic Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times four years ago, discussing a book on the subject, Richard Stanton’s The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions:
Few immortals swim through the book’s pages. Jack Butler Yeats — younger brother of the poet W.B. — won the silver medal at the Paris competition in 1924 for “Natation (Swimming).” … Josef Suk, the lone musical winner at the 1932 Los Angeles games, was a noted Czech composer and a student and son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak.
But does anyone still play the “Olympic Symphony” by Zbigniew Turski, a prize winner in the last competition, in London in 1948? Does anyone play anything by Zbigniew Turski? Somehow typical is this forlorn confession from Mr. Stanton, relating to the Finnish poet Aale Tynni, who won the top prize for literature in the last games: “As of this time, a copy of her gold medal poem ‘Hellaan Laakeri’ has not been located.” Sic transit gloria Tynni. [Thus passes the glory of Tynni.]
It is perhaps a sign of the Olympic art competitions’ shortcomings that the man generally considered the father of the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin (who founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894) entered the first art contest under a pseudonym with a poem called “Ode to Sport,” and won the gold medal. Or that Jan Wils won the 1928 gold medal for architecture for the Olympic Stadium he designed for the 1928 games. The Nazis also succeeded in stacking the judging decks in 1936, when they hosted, and awarded five out of nine medals to their own. (Although the US did that, too, in 1932.)
The Olympic art competitions were meant “to reunite in the bonds of legitimate wedlock a long-divorced couple — Muscle and Mind,” in the words of Coubertin. A noble goal. Sadly, amateur art competitions devoted to athleticism seem not to be the way to do it.