Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal

San Francisco, July 2012—Opening July 28th in Gallery 1 at the Legion of Honor, and coinciding with the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal presents a selection of works from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent collection supplemented by loans of antiquities. Celebrating the Olympian ideal, the exhibition features ancient Greek and Roman coinage, contemporary work from artists including Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus and Alex Katz, advertising labels, and a variety of sculptures, works on paper, antiquities, and textiles.

Curated by Renée Dreyfus, Curator in Charge of Ancient Art and Interpretation, Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal begins at the intersection of athletics and religious practice. “The ancient Greeks believed that victory at Olympia was owed to the favor of the gods,” says Dreyfus. “The Athenian philosopher Plato especially was of this opinion when he wrote about striving for perfection and the ideal. He was an athlete, trained as a wrestler and his love of the Games is seen in his frequent use of athletic analogies and examples, which were probably drawn from his own experience. To him, divinely inspired art and athletic prowess were truly gifts from the gods.”

Focusing extensively on the permanent collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and featuring ancient coins lent by the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society, Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal is an exploration of physical beauty in the context of both the ancient and modern Olympic Games. The exhibition reveals how the Games were central to Greek culture from 776 BC to the mid-fifth century AD. Those Games, originally dedicated to the Olympian gods, eventually lost their religious emphasis and died out until being revived as an entirely secular event in 1896.

The exhibition’s featured coins include images of traditional foot and horse races in addition to trumpet blowing and more brutal events like the pankration, a no-holds-barred wrestling event, offering a window to Games both similar and very different to our own. The continuity of the Olympic ideal, and the inspiration that modern artists find in the physical grace of Olympic athletes, brings Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal into the more contemporary realm—with works including Rodin’s sculpture of American athlete Samuel Stockton White III and Diane Arbus’ portrait of a muscle man contestant. The exhibition illustrates artists’ continuing fascination with the ideal human form while also exploring the commercial images that are a major part of the modern Olympics.

Though the ideals expressed through the Olympics are put to different uses, they all share a common sense of optimism and purpose. A showcase of the rich and diverse works in the permanent collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gifts from the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal offers an intimate view of the Olympics as a cultural construct and an individual endeavor, both spiritual and commercial, from the ancient world to modern times. As Dreyfus notes, “Almost 3,000 years after the first recorded Olympic Games, we still see the Games as the ultimate competition. It is only the champions who return home triumphant and whose fame endures. Theirs are the perfect bodies creating unbelievable feats of sheer strength, extraordinary movements, and beautiful forms.”

Local Bay Area artists with work in the show:

  • J. Robert Anderson: 1982 Gay Olympics; color screenprint
    This poster from 1982 was created to promote the Gay Olympics but a legal threat from the IOC forced their eventual re-naming as the Gay Games.
  • Michael Schwab: Girl with Beach Ball, color offset lithograph; Giro/Lance, color screenprint; The Bridge to the Future: San Francisco, U.S. Bid City, 2012 Olympic Games, color offset lithograph.
  • Katherine Westphal (American, b. 1919); Length of fabric: John McEnroe, 1988; Silk, wool, synthetic yarn; compound weave (Jacquard woven)
    The jacquard loom, invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801, is controlled by punched cards that change its actions. The ability to alter the loom’s weave by simply replacing cards was an important conceptual precursor to the development of computer programming.