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       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

Running in Painting and Sculpture

So what can painting tell us about running? Well, not much about cadence and form, judging from the selection we'll be bringing you, unless you count the predilection for barefoot running. Many of the images draw to some extent on myth, in which running has often been a symbol of aspiration, excellence and transformation, an aspect of the hero and of the quest.


Sculpture uses its extra dimension to give a more convincing physical portrayal of the striving human body in motion, shaping energy into the material, whether pent-up or in full flow.  


We begin with a work by a painter in a classical mood......

Pablo Picasso's Women Running on the Beach (The Race)

Picasso's 'Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race)'

Does this scene seem familiar?  A naughty seaside postcard, perhaps, or the mums' race on school sports day? Baywatch babes playing chain tag? Martha and one of the Muffins? Or a profound observation on the human predicament by one of the world's greatest artists?


For runners, my guess is that it will evoke the kind of ecstatic pose often seen at the finish line of a modern city marathon, with hand-holding friends breasting the tape together. OK, they may have running bras these days, including the ubiquitous men dressed as pink fairies, but what we have here is no exhausted running on empty: this is running as exuberant, wind-in-the-hair, off-the-treadmill liberation, a bursting into the future with bare feet turning the earth.


And the world certainly needed turning in 1922. 'The Race' was painted just after the horrors and upheavals of The Great War, when the political elite were urgently exploring ways of fomenting international cooperation and freedom rather than competition and hegemony, an idea vividly echoed here in Picasso's image of women clasping hands while racing.


The racing attire here may seem to us more like beachwear, but this style of dress has a venerable running heritage well known to Picasso, who at that time had felt the need to take a break from the fragmented angst of modernism to bring elements of harmony into his work.


In this he was inspired by classical sculpture, as we can see here: his runners are dressed in the ancient Greek 'chitons' worn by female athletes at the women-only games of Olympia or Sparta. These would run with one breast exposed, apparently as homage to the Amazons ('a-mazos', Greek for 'without breast'), the semi-legendary female warriors of antiquity who had one breast cauterised in childhood to facilitate the drawing of a bowstring or the throwing of a javelin. IOC, take note.


It may seem ironic to portray these monumental yet buoyant figures in a miniature work barely a foot high, but Picasso did paint a much larger version for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe in Paris in 1924. This was his drop curtain design for the ballet 'Le Train Bleu', which, despite its title, was set on a Mediterranean beach full of preening flappers and wealthy gigolos, all isolated characters gambolling at their sports in the shallows.


The final curtain brought down this silent, withering comment on the preceding banalities. Picasso's runners are no strangers on the shore striving to outdo or impress each other, and the sun shines on their exhilarating solidarity. It's tempting to think that the 'race' of Picasso's title refers to the human race, even though this resonance is not there in the original French or in his own Spanish.


A great many artists, particularly writers, have tapped into particular aspects of running while shaping their work, in this case into its vibrant energy and momentum; but philosophers have also reflected on running, scientists have analysed it, comedians have laughed at it and musicians have grooved to its rhythms. The Running Muse will be nourishing your runner's soul every week with stories from all of them.  


A later posting will discuss one of Picasso's rather more lascivious running figures, after which you may need a cold shower, but next week you can meet one of cinema's most irrepressible runners........



Pablo Picasso, 'Deux Femmes Courant sur la Plage (La Course)', 1922 gouache on plywood board, 32.5cm x 41.1cm, Musée National Picasso, Paris.      

'Once, the greatest runner was a woman....'

Imagine running in a race when you know you will either be executed at the finish line or marry your opponent. And just to ramp up the stakes, this opponent is sworn to celibacy, is your heart's desire, and is unbeaten. What thoughts would be rushing through your head as your potential nemesis eases up to your shoulder and overtakes you?


Such was the predicament of Hippomenes in his run against Atalanta, the famed virgin huntress who had outrun every challenger, man or woman. Her story has inspired some of the greatest art in Western culture, most of it influenced by Ovid's 'book of transformations', Metamorphoses, a Romanised version of selected Greek myths written around 0 B.C. (and/or 0 A.D.).

Hippomenes and Atalanta at the Louvre

Before we get to the tale itself, here is a trailer in the form of a pair of sculptures of Hippomenes and Atalanta, pictured here running through the Cour Marly at the Louvre in Paris. Note the gaze of each runner: Atalanta's is firmly fixed on the finish, while Hippomenes only has eyes for her. Change gonna come, though.


In Ovid's tale, Venus is regaling her beloved Adonis with this story of Atalanta, who had already found fame as the first to draw blood from a monstrous Calydonian boar that was wreaking havoc across the land (the subject of a Rubens painting and a Handel opera). Happy with her independence, she was disinclined to marry, but her father had persuaded her to take as a husband any man who could beat her in a footrace, with instant death as the forfeit if they failed. She considered coming second to be so unlikely that she reluctantly agreed, and many a suitor 'coughed up her bloody winnings', losing their breath before they'd even got it back.


Hippomenes was a spectator at one of these attempts:


       'What fool', he laughed, 'would wager life itself

       Simply to win a woman -

       With a foregone conclusion against him?

       This is a scheme to rid the world of idiots.'  


It was at that moment that the first of Ovid's transformations took place, one where love overcomes reason: Atalanta, whose 'running redoubled her beauty', had a wardrobe malfunction mid-race and 'her dress opened and fell to her feet'. Young Hippomenes was gone, man.....solid gone.


His 'brain turned over' and he devised a cunning plan to win Atalanta as his bride. She, for her part, felt an attraction she couldn't understand, and tried to warn him off: 'My marriage bed is a sump under the executioner's block', as she put it, her equivalent of the 'it's not you, it's me' refrain of modern dumping practice.


      'Then at a blast of the trumpets

       Both shot from their marks.

       Their feet flickered away and the dust hung.

       They could have been half-flying over water

       Just marring the shine.........'


......just as the sculptures pictured above were designed to do in their original site in the ornamental pond at the Château Marly. The game was afoot, but as the race unfolded, Atalanta's growing feelings for her opponent were beginning to blunt her competitive edge:  


       '....she leaned back on her hips, reining back

        The terrible bolt of speed in her dainty body,

        And clung to him with her glance even as she left him

        Tottering as if to a halt, labouring for air

        That scorched his mouth and torched his lungs,

        With most of the course to go.'


Given the wife-or-life stakes here, Hippomenes' racing strategy was risky, to say the least: every so often, he would toss an old piece of fruit into the path of his opponent, the acknowledged fastest runner on earth. These bits of fruit, however, were three irresistible golden apples (possibly quinces) given to him by Venus from her back garden in Cyprus.  

Guido Reni, 'Atalanta and Hippomenes,circa 1612

As you can see here in Guido Reni's painting in the Prado in Madrid, the plan began well. While I wouldn't think a cloak the size of a small parachute would be the most practical attire for giving a competitive edge to one's running, the drapery at least enabled Reni to suggest movement, as well as to capture the race at a serendipitous moment for both the modesty of the competitors and the sensibilities of his 17th century patrons.


Motivation in ancient myth is often ascribed to the intervention of the gods, while modern psychology sees these gods within, and physiologists may point to a little bit more or less of this or that hormone being secreted here and there. Wha'ever. As any runner knows (or is it just me), simultaneous triggering of the primitive human drives for food and sex during a race is no recipe for a PB.


Sure enough, our heroine's risk/reward assessment of the situation, befuddled by her attraction to both her opponent and the golden fruit, impelled her to stop at each tossing, thereby losing time and becoming three apples heavier. She came last for the first time.    


Reader, she married him. Ms. Atalanta (which means 'balanced, equal in value') became Mrs. Hippomenes ('spirited horse'). The running courtship was over, but this is Greek myth, not a fairy tale, and there was to be no living happily ever after; further transformations were in store for our two runners, as we shall see.


Meanwhile, I shall be bringing a crate of Cox's Pippins to my next Run for Life, especially if it's for my own.



Hippomenes by Guillaume Coustou (c. 1714, marble, height 1.31m, Louvre Museum, Paris) was designed to complement  Atalanta (1704, marble, height 1.28m, Louvre Museum, Paris), a copy by Pierre Lepautre of a Greek original in the collection of Cardinal Mazarin.

Atalanta and Hippomenes by Guido Reni, c.1612, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

As one who finds that word-for-word literal translations make for rather clunky, viscous reading, I have taken all quotes from Ted Hughes' poetic adaptation of the Metamorphoses, published as Tales from Ovid (Faber and Faber).

'It's like a jungle sometimes....'

Ever heard the one about the bipedal octopus? The running bipedal octopus? No, this is not a joke from a Christmas cracker - at least two types of octopus use just two of their eight legs for locomotion along the sea bed in shallow water, while the other six are used to create camouflage as a mat of algae or a floating coconut.


Across the animal kingdom, the evolution of bipedalism has conferred a range of enormous benefits, from freeing up other limbs for feeding, carrying, fighting, etc., to thermoregulation and flying. Not the least of these is the greater speed it can afford in the predator-prey arms race. So, four legs bad, eight legs good........two legs better?


Bipedal running may have obvious advantages for your PB, but for your great-great-(150,000 greats)-great-grandparents, it meant their survival and your existence. As the environment changed, our ancestors in the jungle couldn't rest on their evolutionary laurels - each had to ' wonder how I keep from going under', and, luckily for you, their response four million years ago was to emerge on to the savannah grassland where an advantageous erect stance evolved, otherwise you would now be clambering around your local 10k with Nike gloves to the ground.


In this extraordinary clip of an eight-hour persistence hunt by men of the Kalahari San, David Attenborough explains how upright, hands-free, sweat-cooled, large-brained endurance runners can track and cooperate in silent pursuit of an apparently faster animal. The hunt culminates in a final solo chase and a poignant ceremonial tribute to the hunted.

'Hunter and hunted are both at the end of their strength, and neither can go on much longer', says Attenborough, but it may be that the modern runner's feelgood factor, that pleasurable feeling of pushing the body in spite of, or maybe because of, the stress it engenders, is tuning in to a primitive hormonal heritage.


Below are two 3,000-year-old examples of San rock art depicting such a hunt. Ground ochre earth pigments or charcoal would have been mixed with blood, animal fat, urine or egg yolk and applied with the fingers or some kind of brush. The images are thought to be the products of shamanic ritual, a religious magic in which controlled representations of a hunt or a battle attempt to help ensure a successful outcome. This mindset perhaps has a modern echo in the visualisation techniques used by sports psychologists working with elite athletes today.

San! Kalahari Bushman rock art runners
Rock art runners

Primitive art has provided inspiration for many modern artists. Figurative elements in their work are often clipped down to their essential underlying forms, some of which may then be selected for emphasis. Compare those rock images, for example, with the two sculptures below - Gary Scott's elongated Paralympian Sprinters, and  Alberto Giacometti's similarly stretched Running Man, which he presented as more of an About-to-be-Running Man (Giacometti maintained that he did not sculpt the human figure but 'the shadow that is cast').

paralympic sprint running sculpture
Giacometti Running Man

Back in the real world of flesh and bone, evolution also shapes and selects elements for emphasis, but there have been costs to the development of an upright stance in humans - the extra weight bearing down through just two limbs causes problems for the joints of the lower back and knees - but they are outweighed by the benefits, as you can see in this hilarious clip of how y'all'd fare on a quadrupedal Sunday run, for instance. It shows the current men's world record for '100m on all fours' - the winner has twice as many limbs working the track as Usain Bolt does, but his time is over 60% slower.

Anyway, the next time a cheetah clamps its jaws around your prize rabbit and races off like a Ferrari, give chase like a Trabant - you should be able to run it to a standstill after about 5k. How you then ask for your Flopsy back is up to you, but both critters will be in awe of your 5k tempo run on just two legs.



Video clip from 'Food for Thought', episode 10 of The Life of Mammals (BBC, 2002) with David Attenborough

San rock painting at Malilangwe, Zimbabwe

San rock painting in the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Paralympian Sprint sculpture by Gary Scott, plaxtin, 30cm x 40cm x 30cm, 2012

Running Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, painted bronze, 57cm x 27cm x 12.5cm, 1950

'Fastest 100m on all Fours' clip from Guinness World Records Day, 2014

Picasso's running minotaur

There is a legendary athletics BBC commentary on an Olympic 800 metres race featuring eventual gold medallist Alberto Juantorena: '......and the big Cuban opens his legs and shows his class'.


I'm afraid to say that this inadvertent double entendre was the first thing that flashed through my ignoble mind when I saw this 1928 charcoal and paper collage by one of the great 20th century artists, perhaps the greatest, Pablo Picasso.


Because that's not a sock.


This image of an alarmingly priapic runner is one of a great many in Picasso's work that draw on the ancient Greek story of the minotaur, the half man, half bull creature waiting in his labyrinth to devour human sacrifices. Being Spanish, Picasso might have been expected to have references to bulls and bullfighting in his work, but what did the minotaur represent for him?


Picasso himself gives us a clue: 'If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined with a line, it might represent a minotaur', he said. As a free-thinking artist, he felt trapped in his own private labyrinth by the social mores of his time, and he expressed his irrational urgings through the hybrid beast's inbuilt alter ego.

picasso drawing.jpeg

Now a minotaur is an example of a chimera, a mythical creature with the body parts and behavioural characteristics of different animals (familiar examples range from Pegasus and the Sphinx to the nameless figures of pathos in the films 'Alien: Resurrection' and 'Beauty and the Beast'). In the late medieval art of Hieronymus Bosch, chimeras were mostly visual puns that referred to biblical verses or metaphors, often representing the satanic deceptions that can lead us to Hell.


Picasso, however, seems to have created a personal aesthetic in which he acknowledges his more lascivious or monstrous impulses as manifestations of his subconscious, which for many artists and intellectuals had been validated as a source of authentic outbursts from the psyche by the recent theories of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Picasso's minotaurs were an expression of these uncompromising, bestial, chthonic rumblings.


Freud had suggested that the mind was a zone of conflict in which the morality of the 'super-ego' attempts to suppress or manage the basic instincts and desires of the 'id', and that this struggle is mediated by the Self, the 'ego' (and ego is something which Picasso appears to have had in abundance). A lack of appropriate management skills on the part of the Self can lead to psychoemotional disturbances.


Picasso's Surrealist artist friends in particular placed great emphasis on these unconscious eruptions, however forbidden, sexual or violent they were, however full of rage and subsequent guilt.

dora and the minotaur.jpeg

His own identification with the minotaur was a fantasy in which he seemed to 'devour' women who submitted to him as human sacrifices on the altar of his art (he was prolifically unfaithful to his wives and lovers). The narrative resonance he found in the minotaur's confinement in a labyrinth, especially once he had become famous, led him to view his art as a kind of Ariadne's thread* that could navigate him out of his existential predicament.


The blue design of the running minotaur's genitalia is a witty riposte to this confinement. Besides being an overt flaunting of his libidinous nature, it is a pun on the original 'cordon bleu' (see below), the blue sash ribbon of Saint-Esprit which was the French ancien regime's highest order of chivalry, a symbol of stifling social stagnation (Picasso lived in France for most of his life). Picasso's use of it in this bawdy context is a kind of sophisticated 'Up yours!' graffito, delivered with relish and panache.


But why running? Is this minotaur, half bull and half Picasso, defined only by his head, legs and cordon bleu dick, finally escaping? Is he on a sexual rampage? Or is he desperately fleeing his bestial 'bull-mind', as one critic called it, thus mitigating the chaos it had caused in his life? All three is my guess, given that his style often incorporated multiple viewpoints within a single work.


The rather comical swinging penis of the male runner has of course been represented in art before, particularly on early Greek vases. Long before Lycra shorts restrained unruly members, male athletes ran naked around both the stadium and the vases depicting their feats, where certain dimensions were exaggerated, while others were rather downplayed, to put it coyly.


Picasso's version exhibits a running style of a very inefficient kind, by the look of it, and we are unlikely to see naked 10k's any time soon, but if we ever do, I predict a chorus of 'Swing Low' in the post-race showers.


My own running life exhibits some chimeric qualities - half mud-skipper, half elephant - and so I've been inspired by Pablo to work on a collage expressing my primitive proclivities. My inner beast is called a mudpach, and it has a very small trunk.



'Le Minotaure (The Minotaur)', 1928, Pablo Picasso, black chalk and pasted paper on canvas, 142 cm x 232 cm, The National Museum of Modern Art Pompidou Centre, Paris.

It was a collage made as a blueprint for a wool and silk tapestry that was eventually woven to the same dimensions in the Gobelin workshop in 1935. Now known as the Cuttoli Tapestry after its commissioner and owner, it is in currently at the Musée Picasso in Antibes.

The Gobelin workshop made tapestries for the French royal families for centuries and continues as a business and visitor attraction in Paris.


'Louis, Dauphin of France' by Hubert Drouais, c.1745, oil on canvas, 68cm x 57cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Louis was the son of Louis XV, but never became king.

'Drinking Minotaur and Reclining Woman' by Pablo Picasso, 1933 lithograph.

'Dora and the Minotaur' by Pablo Picasso, 1936, charcoal and black ink, 74cm x 40cm, Musée Picasso, Paris. Dora Maar was the painter's mistress and muse at the time.


* In the Greek myth, when Theseus goes to Crete and enters the labyrinth, he leaves a trail of thread given to him by King Minos' daughter, Ariadne, who had become enamoured of him. Having slain the minotaur, he retraces his steps to find his way out of the maze.

The ship in which he returned from this venture was preserved for centuries by the Athenians he ruled, each part being replaced as it rotted. Since the whole ship was eventually replaced, could it still be considered Theseus' ship? This is the 'Ship of Theseus Paradox' that is often invoked by philosophers discussing identity (perhaps not least because we ourselves are continually replacing most of the cells in our body).

The minotaur's stepbrother, by the way, was an athlete from Crete who had won all the prizes at the Panathenaic Games. It was his consequent murder by humiliated Athenians that led King Minos to demand that the cream of Athens' youth be fed to his stepson (the minotaur).

The Running Muse

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