When the Olympics Gave Out Medals for Art | Arts & Culture| Smithsonian Magazine

    Jean Jacoby's Corner, left, and Rugby. At the 1928 Olympic Art Competitions in Amsterdam, Jacoby won a gold medal for Rugby. (Collection: Olympic Museum Lausanne)

    Jean Jacoby’s Corner, left, and Rugby. At the 1928 Olympic Art Competitions in Amsterdam, Jacoby won a gold medal for Rugby. Collection: Olympic Museum Lausanne

    At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, American Walter Winans took the podium and waved proudly to the crowd. He had already won two Olympic medals—a gold for sharpshooting at the 1908 London Games, as well as a silver for the same event in 1912—but the gold he won at Stockholm wasn’t for shooting, or running, or anything particularly athletic at all. It was instead awarded for a small piece of bronze he had cast earlier that year: a 20-inch-tall horse pulling a small chariot. For his work, An American Trotter, Winans won the first ever Olympic gold medal for sculpture.

    During the first four decades of competition, the Olympics awarded official medals in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and music, in addition to those in athletic competition. from 1912 to 1952, the juries awarded a total of 151 medals to original works in fine art inspired by athletic activities. Now, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the first artistic competition, it is unknown even to fans of the Olympics that the arts, along with athletics, have been a part of the modern games almost from the beginning.

    Reading: Art in the olympics

    “everyone i’ve talked to about it has been shocked,” says richard stanton, author of the forgotten olympic art competitions. “I first found out about it reading a history book, when I came across a little comment about the Olympic art competitions, and I just said, ‘what competitions?’” Driven by curiosity, he wrote the first—and still the only — English -language book ever published on the subject.

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    to learn about the overlooked topic, stanton had to search through crumbling boxes of often unreadable files from the international olympic committee’s archives in switzerland, many of which hadn’t seen the light of day since they were packed up ago. decades. He discovered that the story went back to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC and of the modern Games, who saw art competitions as an integral part of his vision of the Olympic Games. “He was classically raised and educated, and was particularly impressed with the idea of ​​what it meant to be a true Olympian, someone who was not only athletic, but also knowledgeable about music and literature,” says Stanton. he “felt that in order to recreate the events in modern times, it would be incomplete not to include some aspect of the arts.”

    At the turn of the century, as the Baron strove to build the modern Olympic Games from scratch, he was unable to convince the overextended local organizers of the first Games in Athens, St. louis and paris that arts competitions were necessary. but he stood firm. “There is only one difference between our Olympics and simple sports championships, and that is precisely the art competitions as they existed in the ancient Greek Olympics, where sports exhibitions walked on an equal footing with artistic exhibitions,” he declared.

    finally, in time for the 1912 stockholm games, he was able to secure a venue for the arts. submissions were requested in the categories of architecture, music, painting, sculpture and literature, with one caveat: each entry had to be inspired in some way by the concept of sport. some 33 artists (mostly European) submitted works and a gold medal was awarded in each category. In addition to the winan chariot, other winners included a modern stadium construction plan (architecture), an “Olympic triumphal march” (music), friezes depicting winter sports (painting), and an ode to sport (literature). the baron himself was among the winners. Fearing that the competitions would not attract enough entrants, he wrote the winning ode under the pseudonyms George Hohrod and Martin Eschbach, leaving the medal jury not knowing who the real author was.

    For decades to come, as the Olympics became a premier international event, fine arts competitions remained an overlooked sideshow. to satisfy the sport-inspired requirement, many paintings and sculptures were dramatic depictions of wrestling or boxing matches; most architecture plans were for stadiums and arenas. the format of the competitions was inconsistent and sometimes chaotic: a category might get a silver medal but not a gold one, or the jury might be so disappointed with the submissions that no medals were awarded. at the 1928 amsterdam games, the literature category was split into lyrical, dramatic, and epic subcategories, then reunited as one for 1932, then split again in 1936.

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    Many connoisseurs of the art world viewed contests with mistrust. “Some people were excited about it, but quite a few were aloof,” says stanton. “They didn’t want to have to compete, because it could damage their own reputation.” the fact that the events had been started by people from outside the arts, rather than artists, musicians, or writers, and the fact that all entries had to have a sports theme, also led many of the most prominent potential entrants to decide that competitions were not worth it. time.

    Nevertheless, the local public enjoyed the works of art (during the 1932 games, almost 400,000 people visited the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art to see the works presented) and some big names participated in the skills. John Russell Pope, the architect of the Jefferson Memorial, won a silver medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Games for his design of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, built at Yale University. Italian sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, American illustrator Percy Crosby, Irish author Oliver St. John Gogarty and the Dutch painter Isaac Israels were other prominent participants.

    in 1940 and 1944, the olympic games were suspended when nearly all participating countries were engulfed in the violence and destruction of world war ii. When they returned, the art competitions faced a bigger problem: the new IOC president’s obsession with outright amateurism. “american avery brundage became president of the ioc and was a strong supporter of amateur athletics,” says stanton. “He wanted the Olympics to be completely pure, not to be carried away by the weight of money.” Because artists inherently depend on the sale of their work for a living, and because winning an Olympic medal could theoretically serve as a kind of advertisement for the quality of an artist’s work, Brundage took aim at art competitions. , insisting that they represented an unwelcome incursion into professionalism. . Although Brundage himself had once submitted a literary work to the 1932 Games competitions and earned an honorable mention, he stridently led a campaign against the arts after the 1948 Games.

    After a heated debate, it was finally decided that the art competitions would be cancelled. they were replaced by a non-competitive display that would take place during the games, eventually becoming known as the Cultural Olympiad. Britain’s John Copley won one of the last medals awarded, a silver one in 1948 for the engraving of him, Polo Players. he was 73 years old at the time and would be the oldest medalist in Olympic history if his victory still counted. however, the 151 medals that had been awarded were officially removed from the Olympic record and currently do not count towards the countries’ current medal count.

    Still, half a century later, the concept behind art competitions persists. Starting in 2004, the IOC has organized an official art and sport competition before each summer game. for the 2012 competition, participants submitted sculptures and graphic works on the theme “sport and the olympic values ​​of excellence, friendship and respect”. Although there were no medals at stake, the winners received cash prizes and the best works were exhibited in London during the Games. Somewhere Baron Pierre de Coubertin might be smiling.

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