Portrait of Pelé: Football as Art

Sierra Wanden | June 2018

Warhol’s portrait of Pelé (Halcyon Gallery).Source

The worlds of sport and art are seemingly incompatible. A closer analysis, however, reveals why football, specifically the renowned player Pelé, is such an apt subject for Warhol.

Football, also called soccer, is commonly referred to as “The Beautiful Game,” a phrase supposedly coined by Pelé himself. First and foremost, beauty is found in the democratizing power of the game. It is the most widely played sport in the world, especially among those living in poverty – it requires nothing but a ball and a couple of makeshift goalposts to play. Due to the widespread popularity and inclusion of players from all backgrounds, football provides a common language that anyone can understand. In addition to this, beauty arises from the unpredictable web of order and chaos within each game. Chaos is always prevalent in a game; it is impossible to know what is going to happen next, which is partially what makes it so exciting to watch. Yet, occasionally, when the universe is in order, that perfect shot is achieved. Each game of football demonstrates this balance between chaos and order. Every four years, the FIFA World Cup brings people from all around the world together to witness and celebrate this chaos and order. That is the beauty of the game.

Andy Warhol’s 1978 portrait of Pelé is an early example of the combination of sports and art. Art collector Richard Weisman commissioned the piece as part of Warhol’s Athletes series, which included ten portraits of various athletes such as Muhammad Ali, O.J. Simpson, Dorothy Hamill, and, of course, Pelé. Weisman told Warhol he wanted these portraits because, “…generally speaking, the worlds of sport and art don’t mesh well.” Warhol agreed to create portraits of the ten athletes of Weisman’s choosing and subsequently proved how the two worlds could be meshed together.

In his artistic process, Warhol converted photographs of the athletes into silkscreens, transferred the silkscreens onto pre-painted canvases, and added more brushwork on top of the image. Using style characteristic of Pop Art, Warhol infused the portraits with vibrant, artificial colors. In creating these works, he inspired a common language in his art that anyone can understand, not just art enthusiasts. It is a democratic art, much like the game of football itself. It combines the order of a commonly known image, such as footballer Pelé, with the chaos of unexpected colors, patterns, and brushwork. In essence, this conflation of chaos and order is why the art of Warhol is similar to the art of football.

The polaroid that Warhol used for the silkscreen. Source

Born in 1940 in an impoverished town of Brazil, Pelé began playing soccer by kicking around grapefruits and rolled-up socks stuffed with rags. Eventually, he made his way to becoming a member of three Brazilian World-Cup Champion Teams. In 1999, he was named Fifa’s “Co-Player of the Century” with Diego Maradona. Despite his growing success, he was one of the rare football players that exhibited loyalty to his club; he played for Santos for 18 years before switching to the New York City Cosmos for a three year stint that helped popularize football in North America. Whereas it is common for modern football players to play for the team that pays the most, Pelé played out of loyalty to his club.

In addition to his football career, Pelé has been considered an inspirational role model because of his charity work and devotion to helping children live fruitful lives. In 1978, he was awarded the International Peace Award for his work with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) for which he worked to improve children’s lives around the globe. Additionally, he was appointed as United Nations Ambassador for ecology and environment in 1992, and in 1994 he became a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) goodwill ambassador. He continues to donate to organizations that help children. With Warhol’s assistance, Pelé reached a level of celebrity status that he utilized to inspire and help others.

Pelé’s phrase, “The Beautiful Game” not only refers to football, but is the epitome of Pelé himself. Pelé embodies this phrase in his artful playing and in his dedication to providing children the upbringing that he did not receive living in poverty. Warhol’s portrait of Pelé acts as a testament to the footballer’s well-deserved fame as a sports icon and philanthropist. This portrait of Pelé is currently housed at the Perez Art Museum Miami for the exhibition The World’s Game: Fútbol and Contemporary Art. The exhibition runs through September 2nd, 2018, coinciding with the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.

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