Karol Hiller’s Football Game was most likely his final oil painting. It is dated 1938-39, just before the artist’s death, and considered unfinished. It was painted after a period of eye-catching heliographic and biomorphic experiments which preceded Hiller’s return to figurative painting.
At that time Hiller also went back to exploring proletarian themes and painted Workers (1938), in which poor working families, consisting of faceless figures facing the viewer, emerge from the darkness. Football Game was painted in a similar key – football players devoid of identifiable facial features play a game with a gloomy industrial landscape (characteristic of Łódź) looming in the background.
Over many years, Łódź’s industrial landscape often played a key role in Hiller’s drawings and works. For him the city was a symbol of modernity and a source of reflection on human existence. In Football Game the weavers’ city is the background for a football match. This sport, unlike, for example, tennis or golf, was very popular with labourers at the time. The Workers’ Sports Society Widzew Łódź was one of the best-known worker teams, but it is unlikely that the scene in the painting depicts this particular team. Widzew’s strips were always red and white – although the players sometimes wore dark blue shirts for away games, in Łódź they played in red outfits.
The sportsmen in the painting, dressed in professional football outfits, make it seem as if it was neither a training session nor a friendly match in Łódź’s industrial suburbs. Rather, it is a relocated football game snippet written into alien reality. There are no goals and no stadium in the composition, as well as no real stands and it doesn’t have the atmosphere of a football spectacle. We also see a corner kick and a centre into the penalty box, in which the goalkeeper and the defence struggle against the strikers clad in navy. This raises a question: whose perspective is this? Is it a photojournalist? A fan? Perhaps a player? Presumably Hiller painted the scene as if he was standing on the football field, viewing the action through the eyes of a player, presumably one dressed in yellow – if he was on the opposing team, he would be standing offside.
Hiller, who was also a political activist, was known for his leftist views. He believed that the artist should be close to the working class. Perhaps – presuming he took the player’s point of view while painting the Football Game – he wanted to convey the message that the artist does not stand above the crowd, is not a romantic soothsayer controlling hearts and minds, but a socially committed artist, as he wrote in the 1935 feature Malarz, Społeczeństwo a Sztuka (editor’s translation: The Painter, Society and Art).
The spectators observing the match are dressed in navy outfits, reminiscent of one-piece worker uniforms. They resemble labourers who have just finished work and left the nearby factories visible in the background. Their colours correspond with one of the teams’ stripes, but it is difficult to say whether they are rooting for the navy players or if they are just arbitrary observers. In fact, only the couple embracing – the man wearing navy and the woman in a pink dress – are facing the playing field and seem interested in the game. They look as if they were gazing at a romantic spectacle. It is, however, a struggle in which two professional teams strive for victory. We are observing the actions of sportsmen struggling and pushing in the penalty box. Their bodies interpenetrate, but the dynamics of their movements do not resemble the avant-garde experiments of the futurists or Polish formists (like in Leon Chwistek’s Fencing painting). However, it does seem that Football Game is a form of praise for the physical culture and for the sportsmen's efforts and struggles, which was promoted during the interwar period by both left-wing and right-wing politicians.
It is worth nothing that in 1930s Poland, sports were fundamental not only to everyday life but also to the artistic life. Since the 1928’s Winter Olympics in Amsterdam, Polish artists competed in the Olympics in so-called artistic competitions, in which the best painting, sculpture and graphic works were chosen. Sports-themed Polish art was exhibited in Los Angeles in 1932 and in Berlin in 1936, and football was a theme often portrayed in painting. Wlastimil Hoffmann exhibited The Vistula Team (1928) during the Olympics in Amsterdam, and in Berlin, Paweł Dadlez’s Fight for the Ball and Maria Ewa Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska’s Football (1936) were presented.
In 1938, the Polish national team debuted at the World Championship in France. It did not take part in the first World Championship in Uruguay or the next one in Italy. In France, Ernest Wilimowski turned out to be one of the tournament’s stars and became famous in late 1930s Poland, similar to other players in the national team, even though Poland dropped out in the preliminaries. Hiller’s work, painted a year after that, could have also been the artist’s visual response to the football fever which had taken over the country. The artist was unable to create more football-themed paintings. He was arrested and executed by the Gestapo in Autumn 1939.
Originally written in Polish by Przemysław Strożek, October 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.