High Museum tees up ‘Art of Golf' in 2012

Golf has been described caustically as "a good walk spoiled," but Julia Forbes hardly sounds like she's landed in the rough as curator of a major exhibition on the sport coming to the High Museum of Art in early 2012.

Billed as the first substantial art survey on the subject organized by an American museum, “The Art of Golf” will be on view Feb. 4-June 3 before touring four more U.S. venues, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. The show will feature 90 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol.

"Golf and art, to be honest, are maybe not the first [pairing] that comes to your mind," acknowledged Forbes in an exclusive interview with the AJC. "But now that I've been working on it for a year, it's developed into a pretty wonderful story."

The show's focal point is Charles Lees’ iconic 1847 painting “The Golfers,” a panoramic image of a foursome playing at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews surrounded by some 50 well-dressed onlookers, each a portrait of personality. On loan from exhibit co-organizer National Galleries of Scotland, it will journey to the United States for the first time.

“The Art of Golf” continues the High’s multi-year partnership with the National Galleries (a consortium of three Edinburgh museums) that launched with last year's highly praised "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting." Brainstorming a followup with High Museum director Michael Shapiro, Scottish museum officials John Leighton and Michael Clarke talked up the Lees masterwork and how it speaks to the heart of the sport and the soul of Scotland. When they took Shapiro to view the painting, "light bulbs went off," Forbes said.

"And what a nice match it is for Atlanta," the curator continued. "One of the things Georgia is about is golf, as the home of Bobby Jones and the Masters."

Fittingly, the exhibition will feature a special section on Atlanta-born Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones Jr. (1902-1971), who helped spark international passion for the sport. One of five Jones portraits on view will be loaned by the Atlanta History Center, which boasts its own long-running exhibit, "Down the Fairway With Bobby Jones."

The High's golf exhibit would seem to shoot down the same fairway as its 2010 exhibit on custom-designed luxury cars, "The Allure of the Automobile." Some in the arts community felt a design show of “masterpieces in metal” wasn't appropriate for the art museum, but it earned positive reviews, attracted many first-time visitors and became one of the Midtown museum's best-attended exhibits. As with cars, Atlanta, which golf.com ranks as the eighth-best golf city in America, claims its share of links obsessives.

"Artists throughout time have been fascinated with sport as a subject matter," said Forbes, the High's head of museum interpretation. "But no one has ever put [an art exhibit on golf] together this way."

Forbes and a National Galleries of Scotland research assistant had to do plenty of detective work in assembling pieces from numerous museum and private collections. Beyond the Edinburgh institutions, major loans came from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the United States Golf Association Museum in New Jersey.

While not a history exhibit, “The Art of Golf” will track the game’s roots in the Netherlands (home to an early ice sport called kolf ), its development in Scotland and its greening in 20th century America.

Forbes is proud of the range of artists represented, including Scottish Enlightenment portraitist Sir Henry Raeburn and American artists James McNeill Whistler and Childe Hassam. "George Bellows painted golf paintings," she marveled of the American best known for New York cityscapes. "Who knew?"

A humor section will include Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" and sly New Yorker cartoons about golf.

A long-time golfer, Forbes laughed as she recounted trying a few shots on some of Scotland's historic links earlier this month during a video shoot. "What a thrill to take a beat-up old five iron that we bought in a thrift store and jump in one of those giant Scottish bunkers and try to hit the ball out."

And she succeeded, she said, sounding quite chipper.