Regardless of elitist arguments, Corrie Perkin says football inspires poetry and painting, plays and prose
IN 1996 artist Ginger Riley completed three paintings on the theme of Australian football. Two are in private collections ( the Packer family presented one to Eddie and Carla McGuire as a wedding gift in 1997). The third, Wul gori- y- mar ( Football for all Aboriginal People) has hung in the foyer of Melbourne’s AFL House since it opened in 2000.
The Riley painting is in good company, sharing space with works by other prominent contemporary artists. This display of great art — acquired for the VFL- AFL centenary in 1996 — reminds visitors that the game is not only a business but also a thing of beauty.
The NRL Sydney headquarters doesn’t have an impressive art collection but one rugby league club understands the synergy between art and football. Last week Sydney team the Penrith Panthers announced it had engaged three artists as part of the C3West ( culture, community and commerce) project, a collaborative venture between the club, contemporary artists and western Sydney communities.
The Panthers will work with artists Sylvie Blocher from France, Brisbane- based Craig Walsh and Penrith’s Regina Walter to develop ‘‘ five ambitious projects which inject artistic innovation into the club and engage with local western Sydney communities’’.
As for rugby union, young artists such as New Zealand- born Richard Lewer are creating bodies of work dedicated to the game they love. ‘‘ I guess for artists it’s your own story or journey, and rugby is certainly part of that, ’’ Lewer says.
Football — union, league, Australian rules and soccer — is seldom thought of in terms of high art. Yet for more than a century Australian literature and journalism, music, art, photography, sculpture and theatre have celebrated these popular national games.
Sadly, much of this vast body of work often slips under the cultural elites’ radar; football’s mass appeal, hint some arts gurus, rules out the the possibility of scholarly and critical analysis.
As artist and Essendon fan Mark Hilton explains: ‘‘ On the one hand, there is this perception that art loses out to sport, but to what and to whom is hard to define. Then, on the other hand, the last thing art wants to be is mainstream.’’
No one disputes that footy and art come together, often for commercial purposes ( the famous annual Weg AFL grand final posters or league hero Artie Beetson’s recent autobiography, for example).
But great and enduring work can also be found. David Williamson’s frequently performed The Club is still a regular on the national secondary school English curriculum 30 years after its premiere ( a new production starring John Wood is touring regional Australia).
And Booker prize winner Thomas Keneally produced a prose poem in the form of a sports report when he described the 1989 CanberraBalmain rugby league grand final: ‘‘ John Ferguson, a better winger and a better man than most of us, who had, with his mates, taken his first grand final through pure bloody- minded denial of the available evidence, hobbled the victory lap and went indoors to the rubbing table.’’ Keneally’s piece remains one of the great examples of sports colour writing in recent years.
In Melbourne, audiences remember with affection writer and historian Garrie Hutchinson’s From the Outer tribute to Glenferrie Oval, former home of the Hawthorn Football Club: ‘‘ Hawthorn hadn’t seen anything like it for seven years. The leafy streets packed with prowling cars and smiling parking inspectors, the footpaths bustling with raucous pedestrians and the antique Glenferrie Oval crammed with a crowd of would- be fortune tellers and bookmakers, setting the odds for 1981.’’
The art world also has its share of celebrated football imagery. Sidney Nolan’s 1946 Footballer is among the National Gallery of Victoria’s most popular paintings and the Melbourne Cricket Club has acquired the controversial and brilliant Geelong Nothing! No Wumpurani ( young blackfellas) Play for Cats — Plus Geelong by Peggy Napangardi Jones for its new museum.
Chris McAuliffe, director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, has no doubt that footy and art can live comfortably together, provided artists are prepared to think about sport in new ways.
‘‘ Do artists see the challenge as somehow addressing or even encapsulating something essential to Australian culture or experience?’’ he asks. ‘‘ If they say ‘ Yes, that is my task’, then I’m sure some of them will turn to football or swimming or whatever as a way of looking at these questions.’’
According to NGV senior curator and passionate Melbourne supporter Judith Ryan, ‘‘ Many great artists, playwrights and filmmakers have been inspired by football, whether it be AFL, rugby or soccer, primarily because it is part of our culture.’’
Why? ‘‘ Football is a metaphor for society,’’ Ryan replies. ‘‘ You need luck, money and power to succeed consistently. Like other sports, luck enters into it, and therefore the element of chance renders football emblematic of life.
‘‘ Yes, things played out on the football field reflect other fields of human endeavour. As with artists, some players excel and are lauded; others fail and are condemned in the media. In the heat of battle, like supporters in the stands, some vilify opposing players on racist grounds. The players are only human, not gods, and therefore are subject to human failings.’’
Over many generations football and art have played on separate paddocks, viewing one another’s activity with suspicion and, sometimes, contempt. Sports fans are supposedly bored by anything arty- farty. The arts community stereotypically sneers at sporting codes that are popular, preferring instead more complex and intellectually challenging subject matter.
Mark Hilton suggests this kind of discriminative thinking among artists probably begins at art school. ‘‘ I wonder whether they pick up on a certain vibe there or not. If you have a first- year artist painting football players, would that artist be encouraged or persuaded not to paint football players by their teachers? It’s the same scenario as a young artist who wants to use, say, a palette knife as opposed to another tool.’’
Hilton is looking at football through a series of crusader- type figures in the style of medieval illuminated manuscripts. His detailed and compelling work won him a place on the short list of the inaugural $ 100,000 Basil Sellars art prize, an award that asks participating artists to use sport as a theme in their work. ( The winner will be announced later this year and an exhibition will be held at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art.)
Sellars, a wealthy businessman, former national basketball champion and Sydney Swans financial backer, set up the award to encourage artists to address sport in their work. Australian football, league and union will feature prominently among the short- list entries.
In seeking a keen participant in his venture, Sellars didn’t have to look any further than McAuliffe and the Potter museum. The director is a fanatical Collingwood supporter ( he also plays lawn bowls on weekends). He agreed with the Sydney philanthropist that a rich prize and an accompanying exhibition dedicated to sport may be the first step in changing people’s views: ‘‘ On one level we are simply endorsing the activity of artists who are doing a lot more than making a picture of a game, and I think that’s what we’ve seen in a lot of the entries.
‘‘ Artists are willing to . . . use sport as a springboard to much larger and more complex reflections on Australian identity, or on moral issues like drug cheats, racism and topics like that,’’ he explains.
McAuliffe says football codes are highly fertile territory for artists. ‘‘ The passions and the tribalism those sports arouse — more than the kick or the mark or the hand pass — attract artists. And they have an enormous capacity to throw up moments, or to distil larger debates into a powerful image.’’
He highlights the lasting impact of the 1993 image of indigenous St Kilda player Nicky Winmar raising his jumper in front of the Collingwood crowd and pointing to the colour of his skin as an example.
Commercial considerations and limited international market interest supposedly sometimes also prevent publishers investing in quality, expensive football- related literary works.
Melbourne publisher Geoff Slattery thumbs his nose at this idea. During the past decade his company has produced several publications in which acclaimed writers have contributed essays on Australian football.
This month it released a publication that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first officially recorded game of Australian football, and will also soon launch a new literary series called 4 Quarters .
Slattery is a long- time believer in the game’s ability to inspire artists who, in turn, present a new view to the broader public.
‘‘ Football has been an Australian institution since 1858, and it has this wonderful history ( of) cultural connection with the community,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s unique to Australia and the potential for interpretation by quality artists is unlimited.’’
While working on The Australian Game of Football , Slattery says, ‘‘ it hit me that the artistry is clearly evident in the photography of the game over most of those 150 years. It leaps off the pages, showing an amazing love of the game, a connection with the broad community of all ages and all socioeconomic positions.’’
This kind of creative potential, he says, is what ‘‘ makes up what artists paint or construct or conceive: it’s right there before them, in and around the game’’.
In 2003 Slattery hatched a plan with National Gallery of Victoria director Gerard Vaughan ( a Melbourne fan) and the gallery’s then president Steve Vizard ( who, like Slattery, supports Hawthorn) to present an exhibition titled The Spirit of Football. The idea was for NGV curators
to invite a group of artists to participate, with an exhibition scheduled for 2004.
Slattery offered to sponsor the show with a $ 40,000 award to the artist whose work the judges felt best represented the spirit of footy, along with $ 2500 to each of the 21 participating artists. The winner, Melbourne artist David Wadelton, was announced on the Nine Network’s high- rating The Footy Show in August 2004, and the exhibition was visited by several thousand people. Yet Slattery says he was disappointed by the lack of interest shown by some NGV curatorial staff.
‘‘ It ( football) is something that’s loved by more than seven million people who go to games each year, and multitudes more who see it on television,’’ says the publisher, whose company also produces The AFL Record .
‘‘ I thought it was a way for the world of art to connect to a whole group of people who would not naturally attend an art gallery, but would be drawn there by the lure of the game they love and the way that prominent quality artists interpret that game,’’ Slattery says. ‘‘ If there had been a passion for it ( the idea) and a continuity, and lack of snobbery from within the gallery, it could have become a powerful program for the artistic community for all time.’’
Commercial gallery owner Beverly Knight, who is also a board member of the Essendon Football Club, agrees. ‘‘ Where the NGV missed such a great opportunity was to acknowledge that people who go to the footy also love art. Artists are passionate people and they love painting about their passion. But when it comes to football, it’s more about the opportunities which are not there, rather than artists being able to — or wanting to — paint the sport.’’
She adds: ‘‘ It will be interesting to see if the Sellars art prize promotes people being able to paint their passion.’’
For nearly 30 years writer and historian Garrie Hutchinson has found creative inspiration in the AFL game. His popular The Watcher column, which ran in The Age during the 1980s, took football analysis to a new literary level.
The game’s cultural significance is immense, he argues. Why shouldn’t it be fertile territory for artists? ‘‘ It’s something that’s older than later concepts like Australia,’’ he says, referring to historic indigenous pictures that depict Aborigines playing a form of the game long before European settlement.
‘‘ Football as we know it now is 150 years old and it’s mixed up in our dreamtime stories about how it started, there’s the indigenous contribution, ( one of the sport’s founding fathers) Tom Wills and that lot, and it’s a much stronger thing because it’s local and national as well.
‘‘ It’s also a bastion against the forces of transnational and international brands, and American sport. It’s our own thing. ‘‘ There’s a lot there for artists, I think.’’ Hutchinson highlights the plethora of beautiful football writing in the late 19th century, which found a keen market among the citizens of the young prosperous colony of Victoria.
The writings of Marcus Clarke, Tom Wills and ‘‘ anon’’ ( also possibly Clarke), who wrote match reports for The Argus in the 1860s, plus Edward Dyson’s 1896 A Friendly Game of Football (‘‘ Then we bounced the ball and started, and for twenty minutes quite, / We observed a proper courtesy and a heavenly sense of right’’), all contributed significantly to a colonial sense of identity. As Hutchinson says, ‘‘ it was a way of explaining what the most successful colony in Australia was up to. It was Victorian and national, in a nationalistic sense.’’
Hutchinson names Arthur Streeton’s 1889 The National Game as a particular favourite.
‘‘ The mood in that painting is really the mood of our historic and cultural memory,’’ he says. ‘‘ I find that one of the more moving and redolent images of any Australian painting.’’
Vaughan is also a fan of this work. In The Spirit of Football , an exhibition publication ( produced by Slattery’s company), Vaughan writes that Streeton’s painting was produced ‘‘ at a time when the rules and organisation of the game were still in formation. Interestingly, this was almost a decade before the Victorian Football League was introduced. By its very title Streeton’s painting hints at the search for a sense of nationhood and of national identity, which led in due course to Federation.
‘‘ Perhaps because Australian football is unique to this country, the subjects of the game and the players have been source material for generations of artists,’’ he says. In 1981 Corrie Perkin became the first woman to cover AFL. She is a former editor of The Footy Record.
By Johnny Young: Bombers vs Magpies at Titjikala , 2003
Boot of all easel: From far left, paintings of rugby players A. Haden and A. Dalton, by Richard Lewer; Lewer in the studio; Wul gori- y- mar ( Football for all Aboriginal People), by Ginger Riley; right, Geelong Nothing! No Wumpurani ( young blackfellas) Play for Cats — Plus Geelong , by Peggy Napangardi Jones