Beckmann Psychologically Locates 20th Century Sport between Athletic Industrialization and Not Less Athletic Commercial Advertisement

“Competitive principle of victory-defeat engraves itself in sport fans’ perception of the world.”
Representation of Professional Sport in Serious Art – George Grosz’ “Sportsman” (1922), Acting-Out Politics Weblog, Feb.3, 1910


Max Beckmann, “Football Players”, 1929

Bodies (exaggerated by endless exercises and passion for victory) climbing skyward are like the bursting industrialism and feverish commercial advertisement. Beckmann’s football players are like one single body (transformed into knots and bumps of the athletes’ swollen limbs) which plays with itself into exhaustion.

The basic compositional principle of the painting is a bold transformation of a horizontally spread field for a game into a vertical sphere accumulating all the aspirations of the players, as if the real goal of the game is to become above the plyers of the rivaling team (as if the role of the ball is to mark the highest point reached above the opponents). Beckmann deconstructs the obvious – horizontal logic of the game with his metaphor of verticality to emphasize, it seems, the megalomaniacal drive of the players who, as if, want not only to be above their competitors but also above the clouds in the sky.

We see three white- and three black-shirted bodies involved in a brawl-like clash where wrestling, jumping and ball-pursuing are elements of confrontation. The fusion of the players’ bodies not only emphasizes the intensity of fight when players are physically so close to one another, but hints at the alarming level of density of population in Europe. The competitors are so strained and their concentration on the ball as a weapon of victory is so strong that for the viewers of the painting it’s difficult to avoid the association between a game as it is depicted and an intensified fight for success of survival in and between modern societies.

In the lower left corner of the painting we see how the black-shirted player (with an outstretched arm and widespread monstrous legs) is prevented by his opponent to get his hands on the magically shining ball. He is in vain extending his right arm in the direction of the ball, but what he manages to reach instead is as shining as the ball – the crotch of the opposite team’s player. This humorous accent – this joke of Beckmann is a parody on the locker room jokes and comment on the basic physicality of athletes’ world view. This crotch-ball echo is the punctum of the painting and part of three-element compositional motif including the shining rear of the same player who is getting the crotch instead of ball. The visual motif of the rear-crotch-ball is it seems Beckmann’s caustic parody on the evolution of value (progress towards a more refined idea of worthy object) in football players’ world.

Megaphone and the ad (of the athletic event) on the bottom of the painting symbolize the commercial advertisement, while intentionally ambiguous bridge-like construction behind the players symbolizes the athletic industrialization energetic sport events are psychologically part of.

It looks that Beckmann has a cheerful time with his football players while painting them. There are many other humorous details in the painting. We see that in the time of growing fascization in Europe Beckmann wasn’t afraid to laugh at what is popular and unconditionally accepted by a wide majority. Today in US it will be very difficult to find the equivalent power of criticism of sports as we see in George Grosz and Max Beckmann.

Beckmann’s ability not just to register what everybody’s eyes are capable to see, but to transform this matrix of common experiences into semantic “abstraction” and literally to crumble the visual image into his own particular vision, is overwhelming and challenging.