Olympic Art Competitions: 1916-1924

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be taking 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.

Antwerp Opening Ceremonies, 1920/

As he prepared for the 1916 Olympic Games, International Olympic Committee president Baron Pierre de Coubertin hoped to build off the relative success of the art competitions at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Then came World War I.

Even as the situation in Europe worsened, Coubertin remained optimistic that the Games, to be held in Berlin, would proceed as scheduled. The ancient Olympic Games coincided with the “Ekecheiria,” or laying down of arms, and Coubertin wanted to believe that the modern Olympics could have the same peace-making effect. To Coubertin’s dismay, the Triple Entente and Central Powers had no intention of pausing their war to stage an Olympics, even one that was to include art competitions.

On to Antwerp

Antwerp was selected to host the 1920 Games. With the war ending less than two years before the opening ceremonies, the Olympics would once again be planned on a tight schedule. In the invitation he drafted for the Games, Belgian IOC member Henry Baillet Latour called specific attention to the art competitions, perhaps as a favor to Coubertin. “We hope that you will well want to insist to the Olympic Committee of your country that a large advertisement is published regarding the regulations of the various contests in order to obtain, on behalf of your artists, a participation that is brilliant and numerous.”

Let the Games Begin

Coubertin’s five Olympic rings made their debut at the Games on a flag in Antwerp’s unfinished stadium in 1920. Considering that Belgium was in ruins—according to Richard Stanton’s The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, the official program for the Games listed battlefields to visit—the Belgian Olympic Committee did a fine job. In addition to the art competitions, which once again featured five categories, visitors to the Games were treated to a pair of Belgian art exhibitions at the Royal Museum of Antwerp.

Missing History and Medalists

Not much is known about the art competition at the 1920 Games, as the official report was incomplete and published several years after the closing ceremonies. According to Stanton, artists from 18 countries submitted works. The judges were stingy, just as they were in Stockholm, and none of the entries in the Painting and Architecture categories were deemed gold medal-worthy. Of the 11 medals awarded for the art competition, six went to Belgians.

The End of an Era and Plans for Paris

In 1922, Coubertin announced his plan to retire after the 1924 Games, which were to be held in Paris. Members of the French Olympic Committee were determined to honor their countryman’s contributions to the Olympic movement. A five-man committee was formed to focus specifically on the art competitions at the 1924 Games. Committee members solicited advice on ways to improve the competition from arts organizations throughout France, and promoted the events to foreign ambassadors working in Paris.

New Regulations

The guidelines for each of the five events were revised for the 1924 Games based on feedback the committee received. While the new guidelines were more thorough than they were in Antwerp and Stockholm, they weren’t especially restrictive. Some additions were made to protect the IOC, such as this one: “Whatever is the cause or the extent of damage, the Commission of Arts and Foreign Relations of the Olympic Games will not, in any case, be responsible for fires, fights, losses or other accidents to which the exhibited works may be exposed.” Other new regulations made judging the competitions more manageable. For instance, entries in the literature competitions could not exceed 1,000 verses or 20,000 words for prose, while musical performances were limited to one hour.

Impressive Participation and Final Remarks

For the first time in modern Olympic history, the art competition attracted international attention. Artists from 23 countries submitted 283 works, of which 189 were accepted and displayed in four rooms of the Grand Palace. Among the medal winners was the brother of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Jack B. Yeats won the silver medal in the Painting and Graphic Arts competition for his “Natation.”

In his final Olympic address as IOC president, Coubertin reiterated his belief that art and athletics be united. “There is need for something else besides athleticism and sport, we want the presence of national genius, the collaboration of the Muses, the cult of beauty, all the display pertaining to the strong symbolism incarnate in the past by the Olympic Games and which must continue to be represented in our modern times.”