A meme juxtaposing American basketball player Ja Morant with a Pietà painting by Italian Baroque artist Annibale Carracci (courtesy @ArtButSports)

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” Oscar Wilde once wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying. LJ Rader, the man behind @ArtButSports — a popular Twitter account comparing iconic images in sports with art historical paintings, sculptures, and installations — would probably agree. 

One viral Tweet juxtaposed an exhausted and injured Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies’ point guard, to an early 17th-century Pietà painting by Italian Baroque style proponent Annibale Carracci. The Grizzlies had just been horribly defeated by the Golden State Warriors in a Western Conference semifinals game, and Morant’s knee injury marked the end of the season for him. A zoomed-in crop shows Jesus’s dead body draped over the Virgin Mary’s lap, his eyes closed, his mouth slightly open, and his face oriented skyward. Their diagonalized bodies, and Morant’s look of empty despair, share resonances.

Another popular post digs further into the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) archives. An image from a Western Conference Finals game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings shows the late Kobe Bryant towering over Doug Christie, both of them shooting guards of their respective teams. Christie, fully on the ground with his head crunched forward, looks up at Bryant pleadingly. Bryant returns Christie’s gaze from a position of power, his arm wrapped around the ball. Rader placed the photograph side-by-side with Parisian painter Henri Regnault’s 1870 “Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Grenada,” a dramatic, vertically oriented work that shows a king wiping the blood off his sword on his tunic after decapitating a man. The man’s eyes are still directed sidelong at the king with horror. Behind them are ornately designed walls and details based on the Alhambra in Grenada. 

A more abstract work that was recently featured is George Cutts’s “Sea Change” (1996), a sculptural piece made of two identical stainless steel poles that wave mechanically in a smooth, billowing movement. Rader set a video of the piece that he took when visiting the Storm King Art Center in Upstate New York next to a historic photograph of Ruthie Bolton, who played on the 1996 US women’s basketball team at the Atlanta Olympics (often dubbed the “Women’s Dream Team”). Rader tweeted the mashup out when the ESPN documentary Dream On, detailing the beginnings of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), came out in mid-June.

Between watching basketball, baseball, soccer, and more, Rader draws from his encyclopedic memory of art at museums to produce a unique kind of sports meme rarely otherwise seen on the Internet. His method, other than drawing on the prolific visual database that resides in his mind? Going to a lot of museums — he stays a day or two after business trips to go to museums in different cities — taking a lot of pictures on his phone, and thinking about common themes and periods in art history.

“I guess I’m wired a bit different — I can’t remember my keys, but I can remember almost every photo visually that I have on my phone that I’ve taken, or somebody else has taken,” he told Hyperallergic in an interview. He’s made over 1000 posts since beginning this project in 2015.

Paintings of the Ascension are often fruitful as analogies to athletes’ expressions of joy in games, he says. Renaissance paintings tend to contain the most evocative portrayals of movement. And although baseball is his favorite sport, basketball feels like the most artistic sport to him. Modern and contemporary works are the trickiest, but being able to pull them off — comparing an image of a person to a sculpture made out of blocks, for instance — is the most satisfying.

People who are interested in art and people who are interested in sports are rarely the same people, so Rader says he derives great joy from bringing those two worlds together.

“You sort of think of them as on opposite ends of the spectrum — like, you’re either a jock, or you’re an art kid,” he said. Regardless of who might be stumbling upon his page for the first time, he hopes that they’ll “start to be able to see the artistry in sports.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.