The Art History-Baseball Wars of 2016

Cleveland's Progressive Field through a Prisma filter, August 2016. 

Cleveland's Progressive Field through a Prisma filter, August 2016. 

A friend of mine recently said: "I had no idea that there was so much overlap in the Venn diagram of art history and baseball."    

This was her response to me sharing two pictures on Facebook, the first of many that would appear over the following days, that used images from the history of art to comment on the World Series.  One portrayed Cleveland Indians Manager (and arguable baseball genius) Terry Francona on his (in)famous scooter in the manner of Jacques-Louis David's ca. 1801 portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  The other, posted on the Art Institute of Chicago's social media accounts transformed the Haussmannian Paris of Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 painting Paris Street, Rainy Day; the flâneur in front was made to sport a Cubs t-shirt while his female companion flies a World Series pennant.  Since then, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cleveland Museum of Art, two of the best museums in the United States, have been photoshopping baseball logos and jokes into their most famous paintings and sharing them on Facebook, having nerdy fun with a sports rivalry carrying on just beyond their doors.  

For me, baseball and art history have long overlapped, even if it hasn't always been quite as deliberate as the examples outlined above.  I watched many an Indians game as a way to dissolve the stress of writing my dissertation, or listened to games online while begrudgingly spending weekends in the library.  I once proposed a summer course called "The Art of Athletics," throughout which I intended to talk about the literal visual artifacts of sports (like baseball cards), the architecture of stadiums (think "cathedrals" of baseball--like Wrigley Field), and also broader theoretical concepts like masculinity and spectacle through which we see and understand the actions occurring on fields of play.  (This plan was only thwarted by a well-timed research grant that enabled me to go to France instead.)  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has, of course, an extensive collection of baseball cards from the 1880s on; these priceless artifacts document the origins of the cards in consumerism, the progression of available and cost effective printing technologies, and the cultivation of superstars in the sport.  Where there is image-making, be in on paper and canvas or in the eyes of an adoring public, there is room for art history.

So what do these baseball-themed wars between our major midwestern art museums actually mean?  Maybe not much beyond the gratification of seeing the characters in these visual landmarks of vastly different eras and geographies (American GothicSunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, Lotto's Portrait of a Man, and the portrait Nathaniel Olds) unite under the banner of baseball.  I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about baseball and why, even against threats from PEDs and accusations of racism within the sport, baseball still feels more magical than other sports with similar stature in the United States.  I think it probably has something to do with the fact that, for people who love the sport and without regard to who they may be in life, it pulls on the same heartstrings as paintings do for people who love paintings.  

As someone who loves both paintings and baseball, I can testify that the feelings are similar. Standing before Van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone (a sentimental, personal favorite of mine) evokes deep joy and calm in me, and an often elusive faith that there is beauty and hope somewhere in the world. This is the same feeling that occurs when it sets in that your closer has thrown that third strike for the third out to end, conclusively and victoriously, a game in which every factor was stacked against your team.  But the moment immediately after that pitch is for loudly cheering! ... and exhaling.

The Revenant and American Landscape Paintings

I’m deeply far behind on my Oscar movie-watching this year.  In fact, I’ve only seen two of the eight Best Picture nominees (Brooklyn and The Revenant) and besides those, in the marquee categories, only The Danish Girl

I’ve thought for weeks about how I wanted to write a post on the way that the two main characters talk about art in The Danish Girl.  They seem to reify over and over again a connection between making art and making oneself that parallels Einar’s transformation into Lily.  But as time as passed, my memories of that movie have become less sharp, and so I’ll talk instead about the movie I cannot quite shake: The Revenant.

The trailers for The Revenant (and… knowledge of the bear) almost put me off the movie before I could see it.  They made it look like a feverish nightmare, the kind of magical realism that’s hard to cope with in a visual medium.  I knew something of the technical feats Iñárritu attempted in using natural light and that the actors suffered under intense physical conditions; I knew from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Golden Globe acceptance speech that the way Native Americans are addressed in the film might set it apart from previous treatments of similar themes.  All the previews I saw made the movie seem like it was geared toward a particular audience—male, survivalist, sadistic—to which I do not belong.

So I was surprised to find that the The Revenant functions as a pretty traditional Western, dealing with man-versus-nature themes, racial issues, and revenge quests that would resonate with movie and television westerns from earlier times.  A main contribution of this new treatment may be, however, that it updates these themes for a new era without sacrificing the historical.  Though there are still aspects of cringeworthy appropriation in the way Native Americans are viewed, they are also portrayed more deliberately as complicated people with quests that parallel (and further complicate) those of the white settlers.

And then there is the scenery, which functions like a highlight reel of all the greatest nineteenth-century paintings and photographs that communicated a vision of the American West to New York and Washington, D.C.  In that era, western imagery did two things: 1) justify the now very troublesome doctrine of Manifest Destiny, or the belief that the United States had a divine right to expand to the West Coast, and 2) emphasize that man’s powers paled in the face of nature’s unpredictable vastness and cruelty.  Iñárritu’s vistas reignite these concepts for the twenty-first century.  Because he uses the landscapes to ground a human story, they have new implications for viewers who may never have seen the paintings they resemble.

In this first pair, mountains and trees frame an opening in the center field--but that opening is then obscured by fog and clouds, suggesting fear and the unknown to one contemplating moving forward.

The second pair structurally resembles the first with the open foreground and the framing by mountains and trees.  The water in both images provides a different kind of expanse, less solid and dependable than land, yet fear is replaced by majesty here.  The colors of the sky, set against the darkness, indicate that man may also be dwarfed by nature's beauty.

And in this third pair, the structure, fear, and majesty of the first two pairs reoccur, yet the weather here adds a different kind of threat to the mix.  In the foreground of each of these images, a man stands against the whiteness of the snowscape.  Though, practically, this figure shows scale, he also emphasizes the intent to continue working within and fighting against the forces of nature.