This book highlights sport as a key inspiration for an international range of modernist artists. With sport attracting large crowds, being written about in the press, filmed and broadcast, and with its top stars enjoying celebrity status, sport has claims to be the most pervasive cultural form of the early twentieth century.

Modernist artists recognised sport’s importance in their writings and production. This book examines a diverse set of paintings, photographic works, films, buildings, and writings from artists in France, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union to establish the international appeal of the theme while acknowledging local and stylistic differences in its interpretation. From the fascination with the racing cyclist in paintings by Umberto Boccioni, Lyonel Feininger and Jean Metzinger, to the designs for stadiums in fascist Italy and the Soviet Union, the works examined are compelling both in visual and ideological terms.

Encompassing studies of many avant-garde movements, including Italian futurism, cubism, German expressionism, Le Corbusier’s architecture, Soviet constructivism, Italian rationalism and the Bauhaus, this book interrogates the ways in which sport and modernism interconnect.

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Why sport?

The Introduction looks at the rise of sport as an organised activity across Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It sets this in the context of the development of urban modernity, with elite sport becoming a focus for the emergent mass media and a concomitant rise in spectatorship. Sport can claim to be the most pervasive cultural form of the early twentieth century. As such it is surprising that the influence it had on modern art and artists has been largely overlooked.

in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39
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The modern sports of cycling and motor racing

The first part of this chapter compares three paintings of racing cyclist produced across Europe in quick succession during 1912–13. The works are by the expressionist Lyonel Feininger, the cubist Jean Metzinger and the Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni. The second half of the chapter looks at responses to motor-racing from Germany, Italy and France. Starting with the futurist F. T. Marinetti’s notorious infatuation with the motorcar, the chapter then considers the importance of the automobile to the purist project of Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant. The chapter concludes by looking at a pair of articles that Werner Graeff wrote for the journal G. Although there are many similarities between Graeff’s attitude and those of the purists, it is Graeff who is most uncompromising in his vision of a modern artist-engineer.

in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39
The spectacle of boxing and the geometry of tennis

The second chapter deals with two individual sports. Boxing and tennis might appear strange bedfellows, but as well as being primarily individual sports, they are also united by their transatlantic nature. The flamboyant figures of boxer Jack Johnson and tennis player Suzanne Lenglen were famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Johnson lived it up in nightclubs in both Paris and London, Lenglen played host to American film stars on the French Riviera. Boxing’s Americanism is traced in the writings and life of Cravan that culminated in the fight against Johnson in Barcelona, which is then refracted through the fascination of American journal The Soil for both boxing and Cravan. Tennis was particularly associated with modernist architecture, with players featuring in books written by Le Corbusier, Adolf Behne and Sigfried Giedion. It was also a rare example of a sport where the women’s game attracted as much, if not more, attention than that of the men. This, I contend, caused problems for Le Corbusier, who preferred to concentrate on the geometrical court and the anonymous male players that he includes in his Urbanisme, rather than the glamour and fashion of Lenglen, a woman dressed by the couturier Jean Patou and who served as an inspiration for a Jean Cocteau piece for the Ballets Russes.

in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39
French paintings of rugby

The third chapter deals with the wholesale importation of a British team sport, rugby, into France. Led by Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics, who was the referee in the first French championship, its adoption by the French was a self-conscious response to defeat in the Franco–Prussian War. Choosing rugby over the more proletarian soccer, an haute-bourgeois and aristocratic elite played rugby at Paris’ most exclusive clubs, a moment reimagined by Henri Rousseau. But rugby could not be confined to these environs for long, and by the time of Delaunay’s The Cardiff Team, with its press photograph source, the sport was included alongside aeroplanes, the Eiffel Tower and advertising as a cipher of all that was modern in the Paris of 1913. Also on view at that year’s Salon des Indépendants was another picture of rugby, The Football Players, cementing the sport as a theme for salon cubism. During the First World War, rugby was celebrated by French nationalists as a sport that had trained its participants to become heroes on the battlefield. This, I surmise, is what led André Lhote to produce his cubist paintings of rugby during and after the conflict.

in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39
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The Olympic games and its rivals

Pierre de Coubertin was responsible for the founding of the modern Olympics. Its antique ideals were consecrated in a painting by his father, an artist of the French salon, who pictured modern sportsmen from Paris paying tribute to Athena. The fourth chapter analyses the most notorious visual artwork concerning the games, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Promoted as a documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but enjoying state patronage from the fascist regime, the status of this film is highly contested in the fields of history and film studies. Here, it is argued that the film evinces attitudes not incompatible with, although not reducible to, Coubertin’s own conflicted views on modernity. This is contrasted with László Moholy-Nagy’s abortive project to film the same games, before a consideration of Gustav Klucis’ constructivist designs for the Soviet response to the Olympics, the Spartakiada, and other constructivist engagements with sport in light of the Soviet emphasis on fizkultura (physical culture).

in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39

This chapter takes its title from a quote by Hannes Meyer, the second Director of the Bauhaus and others as an example for the arts and architecture. The final chapter concerns the sports stadium, a building type with its roots in the antique, but thoroughly reimagined for the twentieth century. Amid a slew of projects two stand out. The first is the International Red Stadium in the Soviet Union, a project led by the Russian Constructivists at the VKhUTEMAS (Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops). Although never realised, with its constructivist impulse it drew attention in Western Europe, partly as result of being featured in the famous Parisian Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925 and partly by virtue of the contacts that El Lissitzky, who worked on the project, had established there. The second is Pier Luigi Nervi’s remarkable stadium in Florence. Named for a fascist martyr, the Giovanni Berta epitomised Italian rationalist ideals. It, like Raffaello Fagnoni’s closely related Mussolini stadium in Turin, was aggressively promoted as an example of the modernity of Mussolini’s Italy.

in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39
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Body politics

The conclusion begins by looking at the treatment of sport in Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant’s purist journal L’Esprit Nouveau. The eclectic and episodic fragments on sport are contrasted with the three-part essay by their associate Pierre Winter. Winter, later the founder of the French Revolutionary Fascist Party, concentrates of a regime of physical exercise and bodily training, in which it is argued an emphasis on competitive elite sport is incidental. But fascism could also demonstrate a keen interest in competitive sport, never more so than when Benito Mussolini instigated a National Exhibition of Sport in Milan in 1935, with exhibition halls designed by some of the most prominent figures of Italian rationalist architecture.

in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39