Arts & Entertainment

Review: Professor Daniel Haxall’s “Picturing the Beautiful Game”

By Don Richards
Staff Writer

Daniel Haxall, professor and KU Department of Art and Art History chair, published his second book, “Picturing the Beautiful Game: A History of Soccer in Visual Culture and Art.” In addition to editing this collection of a dozen essays, which includes one of his own, Haxall wrote an introduction to the volume. He explains how art and historical literature dealing with soccer began to expand in 1996—the year in which the seminal exhibition, “Offsides! Contemporary Artists and Football,” was held at the Manchester Art Gallery in conjunction with England hosting the European Cup that summer.

In addition to providing a historical survey of how soccer has been portrayed in fine art and visual culture more broadly, Haxall includes a useful listing of major art exhibitions linked to soccer since 1996, as well as a list of museums devoted to soccer, such as the National Football Museum in Manchester, England.

The essays are grouped into six thematic sections covering soccer and mass media, history and collective memory, modernism and postmodernism, gender, global politics and commercialization. Considering England was the birthplace of soccer, it is not surprising that three-quarters of the essays are by British authors. The remaining are by scholars from the United States, Australia and Poland, reflecting the global nature of today’s game. However, it is disappointing that there are no perspectives from the soccer powerhouses of continental Europe such as Germany, Spain and France.

The approaches taken by the essays are sometimes alloyed with views informed by sociology, popular culture and sports history. For example, Luke Healey of the University of Manchester devotes his essay to internet postings of animated GIFs that show brief highlights of soccer games. Although Healey recognizes that this technology is fading in the rear-view mirror, he analyzes these GIFs from various perspectives including how they have been fetishized by some fans.

Healey opts for the elevated prose style favored by many art historians: “These GIFs extract from a wider mesh of time in order to emphasize the virtuosic agency of the figures at their center, relegating to mere background noise the dispersed field of persons and events with which the agentic moment is in fact inextricably intertwined.” Not to fear, most of the other essays are written in a more accessible style.

Haxall’s essay, “The Politics of Soccer in Contemporary Ghanaian Art,” addresses the work of three contemporary Ghanaian artists: Godfried Donkor, Afedzi-Hughes and Owusu-Ankomah. All three currently live and work as expatriates in England, the United States and Germany, respectively. Ghanaian post-colonial nationalism which was buoyed by the relatively successful Ghanaian national soccer team, self-styled the “Black Stars,” serves as the context for much of their work.

Students who took Haxall’s new course last fall, “Art and Sport,” will recognize Donkor’s collage works featuring star soccer players presented as iconic figures, complete with saintly halos, placed against backgrounds of the stock quote pages of the London Financial Times. Such work comments on the globalization of the game and the commodification of star players who are traded from one team to another for transfer fees that can approach $100 million.