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I think I've always had a slight preoccupation with wrestling. Not a prominent one, but it’s always been there, growling gently in the back of my mind. Growing up witnessing the bizarre spandex spectacle of WWF (as it was known then) on Channel 5, with such heroes as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The (now ubiquitous) Rock, must have had some effect, as did the time when I told my friend Karl in assembly that wrestling wasn’t real, and he proceeded to put me in a headlock on the spot. It was very real then. Thanks Karl. Wrestling has been depicted in art for thousands of years. What is the enduring appeal of simulated organised violence? Let me take you through five of my favourite wrestling artworks and we’ll see what the deal is.
5 artworks
  • This is quite probably my favourite work on Art UK. It is hard to tell from the image but the face of the guy being strangled is exquisitely rendered and wonderfully deranged. You can almost hear his muffled scream. I also love how beat-up the sculpture itself is, as though they have been throwing each other around for centuries in the dusty corner of the castle in which they are housed.

    Sumo Wrestlers
    unknown artist
    Kinloch Castle, Rum (Scottish Natural Heritage)
    Sumo Wrestlers
    © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Kinloch Castle, Rum (Scottish Natural Heritage)

  • I enjoy the quaintness of this scene. To me this painting sounds like stately oboe and birdsong, mingled with the gentle thud of flesh hitting the earth. It looks like some small-town dispute that is being settled with an audience. Fun fact – I grew up quite near Knaresborough. But never saw any wrestling.

    The Moat, Knaresborough (The Battlers)
    Joseph Baker Fountain (1907–1992)
    The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate
    The Moat, Knaresborough (The Battlers)
    © the copyright holder. Photo credit: The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate

  • These guys look like they are leaning in for a smooch, with the referees looking on in fascination. This air of pleasantry is ramped-up by washy pools of lovely colours. I think this is hinting at something a bit deeper that exists within many of these wrestling depictions – the fine line between violence and loving, and sexual, imagery. Especially as we are always shown a freeze-frame which can be deliberately and deliciously ambiguous.

    A Pair of Wrestlers
    unknown artist
    Wellcome Collection
    A Pair of Wrestlers
    Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

  • Here the artist presents the male form in hyper-amplified style – like those homunculus diagrams of the human body that present the body parts in order of size according to the number of nerve endings present in them. This dude is ripped. The choice of a wrestler's naked, muscular form, throbbing with potential energy can be seen as a tender expression of sexual desire and in this context a lot of depictions of wrestlers can be read as erotic ciphers.

    The Wrestler c.1945
    Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915) (posthumous cast)
    Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives
    The Wrestler
    Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

  • Perhaps the most tender depiction of wrestling of the five – the subjects almost melt into the background in what looks like a loving embrace. It appears utterly ambiguous and gloriously steamy, complete with glistening oil paint. The viewer can choose to read into it what they will: either revelling in the sultry overtones or just enjoying a picture of two wrestlers doing what they do best: getting sweaty and throwing each other around.

    Wrestlers II 1989
    Kevin Sinnott (b.1947)
    The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology
    Wrestlers II
    © the artist. Photo credit: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford