'The Art of Golf' at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, tells appealing story

"The Art of Golf" tells an appealing story of the game and the folks who have played it.



Golf and art: Not the most obvious organizing principle for an exhibition, and I admit to skepticism when I first heard about it a year ago. Turns out I was wrong. "The Art of Golf," at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, is a beautiful and compelling show that nongolfers will enjoy as much as fanatics. It's a scholarly one that also tells a good story, accompanied by a color catalog with very readable essays, reasonably priced at $30.

"The Art of Golf" was organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the National Galleries of Scotland, institutions with many important links (that's the last pun I'll make, promise) to the game. Scotland is the spiritual home of golf, the place where the game as it's played today was developed. And Atlanta was the home of Bobby Jones, one of golf's greatest players who also founded the Augusta National Golf Club and its Masters Tournament.

Games with sticks and balls stretch back to ancient times, but this show starts with a more traceable genealogy beginning in the 15th century with an edict issued in 1457 by Scottish King James II. He banned outdoor recreational games, instead requiring military archery training for men and boys because of threats of invasion from England. (The king continued to play the game, however.)

This exhibition hypothesizes that Scottish golf was inspired by a game in the Netherlands called kolf, which was imported through the robust trade the northern European ports enjoyed.

We see kolf being played in several landscape paintings by Dutch artists in the 17th century during its golden age. At first, it seems more like hockey because it was played on frozen lakes. But it wasn't a team sport and the point wasn't to slide a small object along the surface toward a goal. Instead, a ball was positioned and hit to go airborne toward a target, usually a tree stump which we see in several landscapes of the time.

The Scots adapted it as a land-based game on fields and dug holes into which the balls were sunk. And by the 15th century, it was popular. Even the royal ban didn't deter players who are portrayed in a humorous 19th century painting of those years several centuries earlier, During the Time of the Sermonses by John Charles Dollman, in which two golfers are caught in the act of playing illegally.

Golfers also often had to play around livestock. The venerable Old Course at St. Andrews, for example, was almost taken over by a rabbit farmer in the early 19th century until a golf enthusiast purchased the land. By the 17th century, golf in Scotland had evolved into an elite sport governed by a gentleman's code of conduct, and portraits of grandees with clubs and landscapes of the courses were commissioned.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Charles Lees' The Golfers from 1847, considered golf's version of Rembrandt's Night Watch. Like Rembrandt, Lees uses real people and a real event in which four noted golfers competed in an annual match at St. Andrews. Lees began the work in 1844 and documented all the individual portraits in studies he made prior to the finished painting. It captures the drama of close putts as players, caddies and guests close in as one ball rolls into position close to another. Compositionally, it masterfully arranges the 54 people into groupings that highlight the central subject, placing the red-coated members in strategic places.

In the early 20th century, golf courses and mostly private clubs proliferated in Scotland. Railroad lines were laid and hotels built to make them accessible destinations. Celebrities embraced the game, adding to its glamor, but its most famous advocate of the time was the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward the VIII and then the Duke of Windsor when he abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. He loved and played the sport throughout his life, but when he was still a young man, he became captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrew, commemorated by a full-length portrait that further burnished golf's allure.

Golf also had become popular in the United States both as recreation and an art subject. Even George Bellows, better known for his depictions of urban settings, created a bucolic landscape in which golf is played in the foreground.

Nothing and no one propelled golf into the public conversation like Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones Jr. He was an amateur golfer from Atlanta, a lawyer by profession, and his incomparable skill and sporting grace made him an international hero. Five portraits of him are included in this show, from a young start in the mid 1920s to the older icon less than a decade later, after he became the first person to win in one year the Grand Slam, the four most competitive tournaments of his time (and still the only person with that distinction).

"The Art of Golf" includes a gallery of photographs, some art, others documentary. There is a fascinating series of Jones by Harold Edgerton, famous for his strobe photos that captured action invisible to the eye. Jones' swing was photographed using strobe lights that showed the complete arc of movement and demonstrate how near-perfect Jones' technique was. Two groups of photographs by John Yang (in black and white) and Patricia Macdonald (in color) acknowledge the importance of golf case design, which at its best is a harmonious and seamless coupling of nature and artifice.

A group of cartoons by British and American humorists provides a break from the solemnity with which the game is treated by fine artists.

I don't play golf and have no interest in learning, but this exhibition made me wish I could, in the immortal words of Chevy Chase's character in Caddyshack, "be the ball."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.