When art meets spirit of Olympics

It is rare that contemporary artists become interested in athletics as a subject matter for their art. Nevertheless, athletics and contemporary art are both growing industries and are most frequently used as means of advancing diplomacy and cultural politics. It is a cliché, although one increasingly heard: Art and athletics is the language that can potentially help bridge cultural tension, and, however simplistic it may sound, political tension. Considering this similarity between athletics and art, it is perhaps fitting that Adam-Pergamos editions have come up with «The Olympic Spirit and Contemporary Art,» a book-album that is largely designed to coincide with the upcoming Athens Olympics. The book is also supplemented by a traveling art exhibition on works of contemporary Greek artists selected for their reference to athletics (most works are commissioned). Author of the book and curator of the exhibition is arts writer (also at Kathimerini) Peggy Kounenaki. Her essays make up an exhaustive analysis, not only of the relationship between art and the Olympics but also of the development of athleticism and the institution of the Olympic Games from antiquity to the present. Densely written in a straightforward easy-to-read style, the book contains a diversity of well-researched information that helps place the Olympic Games in the course of history. Interestingly, one learns that the Olympics and art were in fact closely related; this is what adds to the book’s concept and what makes some sense of the so-called «Cultural Olympiad» that has been planned to coincide with the 2004 Games. Indeed, the connection between the athletic spirit and intellectual training that originated in ancient Greece was a principle that the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin had in mind when he conceived of reviving the Olympic Games in the late 19th century. (Attempts at reviving the Olympics had already begun in early 17th century England.) Archaeological excavations at the site of ancient Olympia by the German Ernst Curtius (the works were completed in 1881) added to this ancient revival which de Coubertin hoped for. His idea was to reinvent the relationship between the Olympic Games and philosophy, and his plans were to incorporate the study of art and literature in the Olympic Games celebration. His plans did not materialize during the first Olympic Games organized in Athens in 1896. The inclusion of artistic events in the Olympics organized in Stockholm in 1912 was the first time that something of de Coubertin’s vision materialized. Almost three decades before de Coubertin, a Greek man by the name of Minas Minoidis proposed that Greece revive the Olympic Games. Shortly thereafter, in 1843, Evangelos Zappas decided to fund a commercial exposition on Greek art, crafts and industrial products (he actually erected the Zappeion Hall for that purpose). The so-called «Olympia» were supplemented by athletic games which were held first in 1858 and were repeated three more times at the Panathenaic Stadium. Although the Olympia were never considered as a modern version of the Olympic Games, they did come close to the original «Olympic» idea of integrating athletics with broader aspects of life. In many ways this was an ancient ideal that could not be applied in modern times. Athletics were no longer tied to either religion, the rites of passage, funerary customs or philosophical training as they had been in antiquity. Even back then, the spirit of athleticism varied from one civilization to another. For example, according to author Kounenaki, it was the Myceneans who first established the spirit of an athletic contest. (They also incorporated foot-races and chariot-racing in athletic games.) The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC and reached their heyday during the fifth century after the Greek victory of the Persian wars. However, during Hellenistic times the Olympic Games were gradually transformed into a professional, business-like event. To ensure as many victories as possible, cities gave financial support and social benefits to their athletes as incentives, therefore replacing the former, more intellectually inclined «Olympic ideal.» Moreover, contrary to the Greeks who only accepted free, male citizens as participants to the Olympics, the Romans used slaves for their Games or hired professionals. The Olympic Games in their original concept gradually deteriorated. The final blow came when the Roman general Sulla looted the sanctuary of Olympia in 86 BC and transferred the Games to Rome shortly afterward. Subsequent Roman emperors attempted to revive the Games including Julian the Apostate who organized the last Olympic Games in AD 393. Art and the Olympic Games In a large section of her book Peggy Kounenaki delves into the relationship between art and the Olympic Games. She mentions, for example, that already from the first Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, two major artists of the time (and who represent the so-called School of Munich painting, an academic, European kind of art) were commissioned to design the medal and diploma handed to the winners. Nikiforos Lytras designed the medal and Nikolaos Gyzis drew the diploma in art-nouveau style graphics. Kounenaki reveals all sorts of information on art exhibitions connected to the Olympics and uses extensive examples of stamps and posters designed by artists throughout the history of the Olympic Games. She even deals with the Olympic Games as addressed through the cinema in an entire, separate chapter. Focusing on a retrospective is, however, only part of the book’s goal. What also concerns the author is the new connection between art and athletics, which is how the art exhibition came about. The selection of artists and their works is too varied to fit in any one description. In the book, each work is given a separate illustration and description. At times, the works seem uneven. But it does not seem to matter; this is more of a symbolic exhibition than an exhibition where one expects to find the cutting edge of contemporary art. The exhibition is, after all, a way to publicize a book that is worth reading for its accumulation of diverse, enlightening information. The exhibition supplementing the book «The Olympic Spirit and Contemporary Art» will open at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki on October 18. It is currently on at the St Marks Basilica in Iraklion, Crete.

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