Rugby being allied to the avant garde may seem rather unlikely. However, for France early last century, organised spectator sports would have seemed a cutting edge representation of modern life. I love how the player jumping for the ball is presented as just as iconic of the modern as the Eiffel Tower.
But there's very little 'high' art featuring rugby - I'm only aware of this one painting. There are, of course, plenty of workmanlike action paintings. One of my earliest rugby club memories is a wall-sized painting of a famous photograph showing Gareth Edwards diving over the try line with, I think, Scotland's Jim Renwick hanging onto him. It was in the bar of Taffs Well rugby club (my Dad's first club), and had an epically devotional quality: 'St Gareth Escapes the Toils of the Caledonian Demons'.
The fashionable Paris club, Stade Francais, has been a trail blazer in doing the reverse: that is, making rugby feature high art. One shirt design sported Warhol-style images of medieval French queen Blanche of Castile, of all people.
This is an unusual but logical extension of the French approach to rugby, with its preoccupation with élan. French rugby even has its own fashion brand, Eden Park, whose pink bow-tie motif came to prominence in the notorious 1990 French championship final when the Racing Club team's back-line played wearing pink bow-ties and drank champagne at half-time - fortunately for their rather preening self-regard they went on to win 22-12. (Their opponents, Agen, a rough old club of the south, didn't appreciate this light-heartedness, regarding it as metropolitan disrespect: they played extraordinarily brutally, with clear intention to maim; French rugby has a dark side).
It's appropriate that France provides the leading (only?) examples of the combining of rugby and art. The French regard rugby as an expression of a sort of English cavalier style; partly true, no doubt, but something happened in translation to accentuate this aspect.
Moreover, rugby over there is primarily a sport of the Midi, making its temperament essentially Latin. It's an approach that, whilst founded on the highest technical skills, emphasises self-expression, that instinct and flair be given their head. (Not forgetting, the darker Agen-style manifestation of this spirit; just as Latin, in its way).
Sounds familiar? The crossover is obvious. For instance, I see Picasso playing scrum-half for Perpignan (being a Catalan): an elusive, inventive, spontaneous, dark little fellow whose natural ability would mean he could top and tail a game with a Gaulois and a pastis to no ill effect. Matisse, on the other hand, playing fly-half for Nice, would be languid, elegant and poised. But capable of lighting up a game with almost otherworldly flashes of brilliance: deft, flicking offloads; an uncanny awareness of space; an occasional swerve of the hips that would make dummies of even his own team-mates.
France has also provided the only player I know of who on retiring became a full-time and now internationally renowned sculptor. The great Jean-Pierre Rives (below) was a superb captain of France in the 1970s, his flowing blond locks, more than occasionally, flapping into a face stained by his own blood - shed deliberately, the cynical would claim, to inspire his team.
So rugby and art only seem to have co-habited comfortably in France. But what's stranger is how rugby in Britain hasn't inspired its own literature, unlike cricket and, latterly, football. Strange, really, when you consider its component of highly-educated players, its strong sense of place, its hold on the imagination of certain communities, its social nuances, the heightened awareness of its own history. Eddie Butler, the Observer and BBC journalist, writes uncommonly well and has a knack for picking up on strong and intriguing themes in the sport - perhaps, in time, he'll turn his pen to the task of founding the genre?
(In googling for this post, I came across this French blog devoted to memorialising rugby's pioneers. It features really lovely old photos and other graphic memorabilia, such as adverts and cigarette cards).
Note: the Delaunay image is under copyright, which is acknowledged.