From 1912 to 1948, Art Competitions Were Part of the Olympics
Over the next two weeks, we’ll take a look back at the fine art competitions that originated in ancient Greece and were revived as part of the modern Olympics from 1912 to 1948.
International Olympic Committee, 1896/
French aristocrat and educationalist Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (seated, at left) was the man primarily responsible for reviving the ancient Olympic Games. As the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Coubertin spearheaded the planning efforts for the 1896 Athens Games and guided the Olympic movement until he retired as IOC president in 1925.
Coubertin’s vision for the modern Olympics was only partly realized with the Athens Games. In the ensuing years, he devoted himself to reestablishing art competitions—a staple of the Games in ancient Greece—as part of the quadrennial Olympiad. Coubertin felt strongly that art was as much a part of the Olympic ideal as athletics. As documented in Richard Stanton’s thoroughly researched book on the subject, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Coubertin once wrote: “Deprived of the aura of the art contests, Olympic games are only world championships.”
Patience is a Virtue
The second and third modern Olympiads were held in Paris and St. Louis, respectively, and neither one featured art competitions. Coubertin wanted the Olympic movement to develop some momentum before he altered the format of the Games. In an effort to appease Greek officials who argued unsuccessfully that Athens should serve as the permanent site of the modern Olympiad, Coubertin and the IOC agreed to let Athens host an interim Games in 1906. Coubertin didn’t attend and instead used the time to organize a conference to advance his idea.
The Paris Conference
Coubertin outlined his plan for the reestablishment of art competitions before an audience of about 60 artists and dignitaries, many of whom had been invited to Paris based on recommendations from his fellow IOC members. “We are to reunite in the bonds of legitimate wedlock a long-divorced couple – Muscle and Mind,” said Coubertin, who proposed five competitions in architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature. All of the art submitted in this “Pentathlon of the Muses” was to be inspired by sport. Coubertin’s proposal to add art competitions to the program at the 1908 Games was unanimously approved.
Disappointment in London and Swedish Dissent
Rome was awarded the 1908 Games, but Italy’s economic instability, exacerbated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906, led the IOC to relocate the Games to London 18 months before the opening ceremonies were scheduled to begin. Officials from London’s Royal Academy of the Arts had the unenviable task of organizing the art competitions on an accelerated schedule. Despite their best efforts, which included establishing the first rules for the events, the art competitions were not staged in 1908.
The IOC met in Luxembourg in June of 1910 to discuss plans for inaugurating the art competitions at the 1912 Games, which were to be held in Stockholm. Citing concerns over judging the competitions, Colonel Victor Balck of Sweden announced the Swedish Organizing Committee’s desire to renounce the competitions entirely. Coubertin fired back that the inclusion of art competitions at the Stockholm Games was not up for debate. The art competitions would be added in 1912, whether Sweden’s organizers liked the idea or not.
Final Preparations and Rules
Opening Ceremonies, 1912/Getty Images
Sweden remained uncooperative in the months leading up to the opening ceremonies, so Coubertin took it upon himself to promote the art competitions and invite artists to participate in the Games. The rules for the five events, which were far less restrictive than the original guidelines drafted for the 1908 Games, were published in September 1911. Among them: All works presented were required to be original and directly inspired by the idea of sport. Size didn’t matter, except for sculptors, who were required to submit “small models not larger than eighty centimeters in height, width, and length.” While there were no language restrictions, the jury—a multinational collection of individuals assembled by Coubertin—asked that all manuscripts submitted in a language other than German, English, Spanish, French or Italian be accompanied by a translation to French, English, or German.
Coubertin himself submitted an ode in the Literature competition under a pseudonym and won the gold medal, though it’s unclear how his triumph went undetected until years later. Some have suggested that Coubertin awarded the medal to himself, but Stanton found no evidence in his research to support that idea. The judges’ glowing review of Coubertin’s “Ode to Sport” read, in part: “It emanates as directly as is possible from the idea of sport. It praises sport in a form that to the ear is very literary and very sporting.”
A mere 33 artists signed the on-site register in Stockholm, but Stanton notes that there were entrants who did not attend the Games. Still, participation in the first modern art competitions was minimal. In fact, the only event in which the judges awarded a medal other than gold was Sculpture. In every other event, the judges decided that the non-winning entries were not deserving of a medal. Alphonse Laverriere and Eugene Monod of Switzerland took top honors in the Architecture event for their design of a modern Olympic stadium. The gold medal in music was awarded to Italy’s Ricardo Barthelemy for his “Triumphal Olympic March.”
In his review of the Games, Coubertin expressed his disappointment that Sweden’s organizers had failed to incorporate Barthelemy’s winning entry in the official ceremonies, but Coubertin was mostly pleased. Muscle and mind were united again.