A foreword about the ancient Olympic Games

The exhibition “ARTIADE – Olympics of Visual Art” first took place at Atlanta in 1996 as an accompaniment to the XXVIth Olympic Games. Works were exhibited by artists from nations that were also represented in the sporting events.This exhibition harked back to the tradition of the ancient Greek contests in the first millennium BCE, where artists and athletes appeared together as ‘technitai‘ – virtuosi who represented two facets of a common culture. From the fifth century BCE the Olympic Games also featured exhibitions of paintings, with prizes awarded to the artists.

There are many examples of the close connection between art and athletics in the Hellenic world: the depiction of sporting contests in Homeric and post-Homeric epic poetry; the eulogies in honour of the victors in a particular genre of Greek poetry, the epinikion; the erection of statues of victors in sacred groves at the sites of the contests (in about 175 CE Pausanias counted 188 remaining statues at Olympia); the representation of the preparations for sporting contests, and of the events themselves, in Greek vase painting.

Colage (C) Maurice Reisch

Plato considered art and athletics to be gifts from the gods, and the unity of art and sport can also be interpreted as part of this same religious world-view. This was lost when, with the increasing divergence of cultures, the Olympic Games themselves fell out of favour. The Games were eventually banned as a pagan cult by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I in 394 CE.

In 1896, when Pierre de Coubertin revived the Games in Athens after a gap of fifteen centuries, he too had in mind a link between contests in art and sport. However, he – and many of his followers – took as their starting point the idea that the representation of sport should be a suitable theme for art, as it had been in the ancient Greek model. There has been a large number of such thematic exhibitions, some linked to an Olympiad, since the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

The limited appeal of such exhibitions had – and still has – to do with the fact that ‘sporting’ themes cannot generally serve cultural ends. As in all strictly thematic art, such subjects often lie outside the field of expression of artists who are representative of their time and culture. On the other hand they also act as magnets for mediocrity, and such exhibitions generally tend to be of a lower quality. Above all, however, the lack of an overriding philosophy brings about a failure in cohesion.

It is here that the ARTIADE pursues a different aim. There is great diversity among the cultures of the Olympic athletes, and their peoples and nations should present works of art that manifest this. In this way they will help carry forward the common purpose of the universal Olympic ideal.

A jury will decide on the artists who will participate in the ARTIADE. The main criterion for selection will be the artists’ uniqueness of expression, rather than any current international trends in art. This should lead to a deeper understanding of cultural differences and of the rich diversity within the community of nations.

Renate Westhoff
– Founder –