For centuries, the Greeks and the Romans constructed ‘modern’ understandings of ideal beauty through displaying gods and goddesses, often times in the nude. However, it is interesting to observe the role of athletes in advancing the idea that the chiseled or toned body is the ‘ideal’ body type. Representations of athletes in art are often times overwhelming. When observing such a piece, it is easy for the viewer to place him or herself in physical comparison with the individual they are viewing. A major contributing factor to this sense of overwhelment, is the idea that the body portrayed is unachievable to the individual viewer. It is also important to note that as a society, beauty is often associated with the individuals who partake in it. Since the first century, modern culture has determined ‘the beautiful,’ through a regimented application of beauty standards. Collective standards of beauty, although destructive to individual identity, insist that in order to become a part of ‘the beautiful,’ and thus, the honored members of society, the individual must conform to its rules. Female believers of this phenomena often decide to alter their bodies, which were designed by God “according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28), in order to become a member of ‘the beautiful’. Similarly, men partake in the same misguided understanding of beauty standards. Although the ideal standard for beauty was once founded in the heroic nude, modern understandings of beauty, which corrupt both male and female individuals today, are most aptly seen evident in the athlete as the heroic and honored individual.
Unknown, Ball-Court Model, 200 B.C.–A.D. 500, Mexico. Ceramic, 5 1/2 in x 8 in x 13 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Proctor Stafford Collection, M.86.296.34.
This piece displays a rudimentary game, in which chosen individuals participate. The viewer can observe that this is indeed a game, as there exists within the piece, members of a larger outside group of observers surrounding the model. There is great speculation as to what is happening within the foreground of the piece, however one can be certain that this ceramic piece is meant to elevate the status of the athletes by separating them from the fans watching from above. This artwork is one of the earliest representations of the idealizing of the athlete as the honored or heroicized individual.
Unknown, Marble statue of a bearded Hercules, A.D. 68–98. Roman, Early Imperial, Flavian. Marble, 93 3/4 in. (238.20 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Frederick F. Thompson, 1903 (03.12.14)
Greek Mythology claims that the god Hercules held the first Olympic games to honor his father Zeus. Hercules was renowned for his strength and prestige amongst men. Legend has it that Hercules participated in several public displays of strength and valor like boxing, jumping, and wrestling competitions. According to Greek mythology, Hercules was the strongest man, and his dominance at the games pushed him into famedom during his time on earth. Hercules’s reputation stretched far as thousands aspired to seek after his greatness. His strength, as displayed by the chiseled marble, became a representation of the ideal human form.
Thomas Rowlandson, Return from Sport, 1786, Etching, 8 3/16 × 9 3/4 in. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959, 59.533.1726.
Within this etching, there appears to be an argument ensuing between a husband and his wife after he spends a day partaking in sport. While the sport is not defined within the context of this piece, it is important to note that this argument could have arose from the male’s elevation of sport over life’s daily duties, particularly to that of his wife. Although there is no visual reference to a sport of any kind, the title alone showcases the displayed argument in relation to a day of sporting.
Pablo Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race), 1922. Gouache on Plywood, Musee Picasso, Paris
The woman within this piece are thought to be in competition as they run across a sandy white beach. Despite their mutual struggle to become victorious, there arises the reality, that while one woman will eventually be crowned as the winner, the other will face the sorrow and regret in defeat. Thus, within this painting, the status of the winning runner is elevated above that of the loser. This reality reflects the value that exists today, where the winner is more valued within society than the loser based upon his or her athletic ability.
George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. Oil on canvas, 51 1/8 × 63 1/4 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 25.8.1
Boxing is commonly known as one of the most brutal displays of physical strength and tactical displays of wit. This is evident within this painting, as the strong victorious fighter punches the other fighter outside of the ring. Yet again, the winning athlete is seen as the elevated individual, with much applause and cheering resulting from his devastating left-handed punch. Despite the struggle of the other fighter, his efforts seem wasted as there is no joy in losing. There is an evident emphasis on the strength of the winning fighter as displayed in the triangular shape of his lower body.
LeRoy Neiman, The DiMaggio Cut, 1998, screenprint, signed by Joe DiMaggio and the artist, private collection
Within this piece, legend Joe Dimaggio, of the New York Yankees, can be seen swinging at a pitch. Alongside this work, countless collecting card featuring sports stars serve similar function in elevating the status of the athlete to that of heroic standards. Joe Dimaggio, for instance, is a hero known by all ‘true’ baseball fans. Within this screenprint, Neiman paints the grandstands in the background, but he does not include the individual spectators watching from above, thus placing a greater deal of emphasis on the hitter up at the plate.