The Art of Football

Football is, in the minds of many people, perhaps the quintessentially modern, that is to say modernist, sport. Unsurprisingly then, many of the most well-known, and aesthetically appealing visual representations of football, particularly in the work of Italian and even English futurist-influenced painters,attempt to capture the dynamism of the movement of the footballer in action.

In many representations of football, the crucial mixture of the modern, mechanistic, and industrial that is so much a part of the games identity, is given expression in sharp angles, fluid colours and the impression, of mostly, forward or circular movement.

Italian visions of football are varied but among the most famous, and in my own view, best achieved are the two following.

Umberto Boccioni, Dinamismo di un foot-baller (Dynamism of a footballer), (1913). MoMA, New York

boccioni dynamics of a footballer

This startling painting, which without its title would hardly suggest itself as having a footballer, much less football, as its subject matter – but perhaps for the triangle of blue hinting at a pair of knicks –  sees Boccioni, in the words Przemysław Strożek, depicting “a footballer, shaping his body so as to maximise his physical force, expressing the health and virility of the new century appealing to the masses. Painted in such way that he rises above the ground, the footballer seems to be making movements similar to those of airplane propellers. Boccioni thus explored the mechanical aspects of movement – muscles built to resemble those of a machine.” This painting is not the only such Italian futurist representation of football, but might perhaps be itself the most dynamic. Another which attempts to capture the motion of the footballer in full flight is Giulio D’Anna’s Football from 1933:

Giulio D’Anna, Football, (1933). Collezione Gattuso, Palermo

d'anna football

D’Anna’s painting, coming twenty years after Boccioni’s is perhaps a more clear representation of a single figure engaged in the playing of football. Although less abstract than Boccioni’s painting, D’Anna’s work still by refracting the same player into two simultaneously existing figures attempts to capture something of the dynamics of movement of the footballer.

As well as these Italian representations in the futurist mode, there is also the famous futurist-inspired painting of football by English artist C.R.W. Nevinson. Nevinson’s Any Wintry Afternoon in England (1930) captures, not uncritically, as noted by John Hughson in his article on the painting, the relationship between the brutalization of industrialisation and this new sport. Indeed, as Hughson’s work notes, there is something in the direction of the players that reminds us of Nevinson’s depiction of the trenches from 1914, Returning to the Trenches.

C.R.W. Nevinson, Any Wintry Afternoon in England (1930). Manchester City Galleries

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Hughson’s article on Any Wintry Afternoon concludes by suggesting that

Sport-related art should have provocative masterpieces, and Nevinson’s
portent against a future uncritically embraced offers much to the reflexive football
follower. Observed today, the painting may prompt critical thoughts about the state
of the contemporary game, and for this Nevinson would not be sorry.

This is a hugely important point to make, since it is better that we have paintings of this kind, that prompt real critical reflection of the game, its state and its future than simply, or indeed simple, celebrations of its most appealing aspects.

Although less critical perhaps in their representaiton of the game and its industrial core, L.S. Lowry’s depictions of football are equally worthy contributions to artistic representation of the game. For one thing, unlike the paintings above, Lowry’s work focuses on the scene as a whole – while Nevinson’s footballers operate under the shadow of industry, and the footballers D’Anna and Boccioni depicts attempt to emulate it by becoming footballing machines in motion, Lowry nestles the game into its industrial context, as natural a part of that particular landscape as the chimneys or indeed the crowds that populate his images. Consider this painting for instance:

L.S. Lowry, A Football Match (1949)

LOWRY-Football-Match

Helena Roy, writing about a recent exhibition of Lowry’s work for Tate Britain noted that “His idiosyncratic ‘matchstick men’ are the stars of his landscapes. He resolutely believed ‘a country landscape is fine without people, but an industrial set without people is an empty shell.’ Lithe, moribund figures are actors on the stage of industrialisation.” Despite this, in A Football Match, it is telling that the crowd is the central focus of the painting – not the players. Given the fullness of the stand visible to us, it suggests that the game is underway, but our view of the dynamic footballer is obscured by the towering grand stand and our view is of the latecomers filing in. Although it may resemble people filling in to work – perhaps Lowry is criticising the mechanisation of people’s leisure here – in the end this is about how the football ground is as much a part of these people’s landscapes as anything else that figures in the background of the right-hand-side. The people draw Lowry to the football, they are not incidental to it, but central.

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