As Sochi gets underway, Eleanor Mills visits Lausanne’s Olympic Museum to explore the connection between art and sport.
Around 40,000 years ago humans began to draw, and depictions of humans hunting appeared on cave walls like Serra da Capivara National Park, northeast Brazil (25,000 years ago) showing athletic stick-men killing wild beasts. Cave-dwelling humans communicated to other clans through drawing what they hunted there. Fast-forward a few thousand years and the Greeks began to see fitness as a leisure pursuit. The Ancient Greek athletes’ rippling muscles inspired artists to portray them. You just have to look at Discobolus (a Roman copy exists in the British Museum) to appreciate this.
Nikki Saint Phalle, Football. ©IOC Ester Franco Varon.
And it is in Ancient Greece that The Olympic Museum begins its story. Founded in 1993 in Lausanne (the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters since 1915, and where the Olympic flame burns on between events), the museum’s displays unravel the complex history of the Olympic Games from Ancient Greece to the present day. But over the past two years (between the London Olympics and this year’s Winter Games in Sochi) the museum has been closed for redevelopment. Was it worth the wait?
The answer is yes. From the Ancient Olympics through to Pierre de Coubertin’s re-established 1896 Games, the museum takes the viewer through each Olympic and Winter Games comprehensively yet digestibly. An impressive interactive LCD screen sets the context for each Olympic event with a minute-long film explaining the politics of each. This, in particular, means that even the lay person can begin to understand the history. Greek amphorae depicting ancient marathons and De Courbertin’s sketches for the first Olympic ring logo are other highlights from the displays.
The Olympic Museum.
Although visual art isn’t central to the museum, Olympism is (the IOC’s word for the culture of the Olympics). When De Coubertin re-introduced the Olympics, he was keen that sport should be only part of the whole equation, and that excellence in the fine arts should also be recognised. From 1912 to 1952 there were official medals awarded for painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music, alongside the athletics that we’re most familiar with. So, it’s only natural that the museum houses so much Olympic paraphernalia, including artists’ Olympics posters like those by Andy Warhol, Eduardo Chillida, Rachael Whiteread, David Hockney RA and Roy Lichtenstein. There are architectural models on show, including the Beijing ‘Bird’s Nest’, a collaboration between Herzog and De Meuron and Ai Weiwei Hon RA. In fact, the forefront of international art and design has always been represented at the Olympics, and Lausanne’s displays mirror this.
The Olympic Museum.
Apart from the main displays, there is also a new exhibition space currently displaying ‘The Russian Avant-Garde and Sport’ (until 11 May), exploring the relationship between the depiction of sport and political endeavors of the Soviet Union. This may seem odd, given that Russia did not compete in the Olympics until 1956 (the IOC rejected Bolshevism) but the Russians set up their own sports initiative in 1928: The Spartakiad Workers’ Games.
Alexander Rodchenko, Sports Parade, 1936. Courtesy Musée de l'Elysée - 2013. ProLitteris, Zurich.
It was these that inspired Aleksander Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova to depict athletes in action; Rodchenko using asymmetric Constructivist compositions, like the below, while his wife Stepanova designed bold, geometrically-patterned sportswear for the Spartakiad competitors. These sit alongside some fine examples of photomontage by Gustav Klucis and photographs by Fedor Kislov and Nikolai Kubeev.
Towards the end of this exhibition, ‘Olympia’, a documentary film by Leni Riefenstahl, produced using footage from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is being played on screen.
Hitler used the 1936 Games as a convenient PR vehicle, and Riefenstahl's films (she was previously commissioned to produce the Nazi propaganda film 'Triumph of the Will') will always be tainted by that legacy. Regardless of the political context of the film though, it is an ode to art and sport: a Herculean figure of a man performs sports under a stormy sky, referencing the classical Greek portrayal of the ideal body. The storms in that video remind me of the political storms brewing around Sochi, one of the most controversial Olympics in years due to the Russian government's divisive policies on homosexuality.
Yakov Ruklevsky, October, 1927. Courtesy GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design and AntikBar.
But if you can’t afford to get to Switzerland and you haven’t got tickets to Sochi, then why not pop down to Grad Gallery in London for a photomontage fix. ‘Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen’ (until 29 March) is a well-curated display of Russian movie posters, with their films projected onto the gallery walls. Stars of the show include those for Battleship Potemkin, Decembrists and October.
Eleanor Mills is the Assistant Editor of RA Magazine