From the pitch to the canvas


There have been many arguments as to whether football is an art form. The recent passing of Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 FIFA World Cup™-winning team has served to reignite the debate once again.

For many, his 86th-minute goal in the Final against Italy in front of 107,412 fans at the Estadio Azteca represents football, o jogo bonito, the beautiful game, in its purest form.

Yet decades before that phrase was coined or that goal was scored, artists all over the world had used football as a medium to reflect society, memorable moments or some of its finest figures. You can even go back to the late 15th and early 16th century to prove it.

Take a look through our online exhibition of football-related art by clicking through the photo gallery above.*

The Chinese artist Du Jin, who was active between 1465 and 1509, painted three ladies playing ‘Cuju’ in a garden. Cuju or "playing a ball with the foot" is thought to have been the earliest form of football and a widespread popular pastime some 200 years before the Christian era.

As the game enjoyed a renaissance in England back in the 19th century, so it became popular for artists to use the game as a subject.

Thomas Webster’s 'Football' (1839) depicted the Shrove Tuesday games of the 12th century where the game was played with a pig’s bladder, while Thomas M. M Hemy’s detailed artwork 'Sunderland vs. Aston Villa' (1895) was commissioned to commemorate Sunderland winning the league title three times in four seasons (1892, 1893 and 1895). Today, the huge canvas hangs in the main reception of the Black Cats' stadium, over 120 years on.

Yet arguably the most famous English football paintings were produced by L. S. Lowry. Although born close to Old Trafford, Lowry was an ardent Manchester City fan and produced four separate pieces of artwork which are treasured, not just in terms of appreciation and monetary value. Indeed, his 1949 painting ‘The Football Match’ sold for £5.6m (6.2m EUR, 6.8m USD) at an auction five years ago.

Football speaks to us all, it inspires us all; and provides so many emotions which artists want to convey on canvas.

Unsurprisingly, the World Cup has been used as a tool by artists to illicit emotion – but not in the way you may expect. The Italian poster ‘O Vincere o Morire’ (artist unknown, circa 1950) recalls the telegrams sent by Benito Mussolini to Italy’s players telling them they must “conquer or die” before the 1938 FIFA World Cup final in Paris. Luckily for them, they defeated Hungary 4-2.

Back in 2006, Hamburg illustrator Felix Reidenbach spent 40 days painting a 2,750 metre square advert for adidas on the ceiling of Cologne’s central station. Taking inspiration from Andrea Pozzo’s Baroque 1685 masterpiece 'The Triumph of Sant’Ignazio of Loyola', Reidenbach granted divinity to the likes of David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi.

The Barcelona No10 is a keen art collector himself and rates compatriot Fabian Perez as one of his favourite artists. The feeling is more than mutual. While one of the painter’s most prized possessions is a signed match-worn shirt dedicated to his children by Messi, Perez’s portrait of Messi sits in the football star’s private collection.

“That’s not really surprising – as just as art and football connect, art and football help the world to connect,” said Carl Gordon from Clarendon Fine Art/Whitewall Galleries. “For me, it’s no real surprise that football is used as a subject for some of the world’s greatest artists. Football speaks to us all, it inspires us all; and provides so many emotions which artists want to convey on canvas. Art and football are part of the international language – and always serve to create passionate debate. After all, while we all have our favourite players, we also have our favourite artists too.”

Award-winning artist Antonio Russo pays a subtle homage to his favourite footballer - former Leeds United and Scotland star Billy Bremner – in each and every one of his pieces. Look closely and you will see a No4, Bremner’s shirt number for club and country.

The American Todd White, who has been the official artist for the Grammys and Coca-Cola, has placed football front and centre stage in some of his most popular artworks, including ‘Tattooing Footballs’, which is included in the photo gallery at the top of this piece. He has also created artworks based on Europe’s leading clubs which have proved to be immensely collectable.

White’s fellow American, the celebrated Andy Warhol, was not the biggest sporting fan but used Pele as one of the subjects in his 'Athletes Series' in 1978 eight years after his World Cup success in Mexico City, as he appreciated his standing in the eyes of millions worldwide.

While some films and pieces of football fiction have been criticised for being too formulaic, part of the reason why football transfers so well into art is that both are completely unscripted.

Every game is a blank canvas, anything can happen. You can have an unforgettable moment in a goalless draw or witness a moment of magic like Carlos Alberto’s goal on the biggest stage of the them all, the FIFA World Cup Final.

After watching that, who would dare argue that football isn’t art?

*Have Your Say *Do you think football is an art form? Why? What’s your favourite piece of football art?

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