Art: Mechanized Motion
Several twentieth-century artists have expressed their fascination with “technological” sports. In the years just beforeWorldWar I, Boccioni, Lyonel Feininger, Natalia Gontscharova, and Jean Metzinger all produced abstractions designed to give an impression of the cyclist’s energy and speed. A generation later, Edward Hopper chose to paint—in haunting realism— an image of an exhausted cyclist between the laps of a sixday race. Automobiles at full throttle raced through the work of Italian Futurists such as Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo, careened across Gerardo Dottori’s Velocity Triptych, and show no signs of stopping in contemporary pictures such as Jean Tinguely’s collage, Panorama Formula I-Circus. Inevitably, the Futurists produced images of airplanes. Mario Sironi’s Yellow Airplane with View of the City appeared in 1915, a year before the abstractionist Delaunay painted his Hommage to Blériot (the first pilot to fly the English Channel).
Obsession with mechanized motion did not mean that Delaunay and other early modernist artists lost interest in runners. Delaunay’s The Runners appeared in 1926, six years after Paul Klee’s composite abstraction, Runner Hooker Boxer. What Delaunay hoped to express by the faces of his five runners—a set of five reddish disks—is impossible to say.Willi Baumeister and Pablo Picasso were among the relatively few artists to portray female runners. Baumeister’s boyishly slender runner, painted in 1927, is nude except for a blue headband. She seems to dance rather than to run. In contrast, the runners depicted in The Race (1922) have the massive bodies of Picasso’s classical period.Their tunics and exposed left breasts are probably an allusion to the garb of ancient Spartan runners.
California is the symbolic, if not the actual, birthplace of skateboarding, rollerblading, and other postmodern sports, so it is hardly surprising that they appear in the work of California’s artists. In Richard Cronk’s Venus on the Half Shell and Peter Blake’s The Encounter or Bonjour Mr. Hockney, both painted in 1981, young women glide by on roller skates. Both pictures were clever visual allusions—Blake’s to Gustave Courbet’s famous Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854) and Cronk’s to Sandro Botticelli’s even more famous Birth of Venus. Both works remind the viewer that the images we use to document the history of sports are also an important facet of the history of art.