Since 2013, Zürich-based fine artist David Diehl has been steadily contributing to a passion project of his named Icons, a painted series featuring large and illustrious portraits of many of the beautiful game’s most revered players. It is rather fitting, then, that of all his many series, this should be the one that became so, well, iconic.
Each positioned facing straight forwards, most frozen with an unbudging stoicism etched across their face, his subjects, having been plucked from many decades of football history in their most unforgettable form, are rendered expertly in oil and gold leaf on pine wood, and are intentionally represented as though each of them were some kind of saintly figures. Conceptual as it might be, to their most devoted fans, that is exactly the way they are seen.
Diehl recently spoke to These Football Times to discuss the origins of this series, to explain the religious and art historical contexts that form a wealth of inspiration for him and other artists, and talk a little about the who and why behind his icons.
Though you have many wonderful series and projects inspired by the beautiful game, David, I think it would be fair to say that it is for your exceptional Icons series that you have become most well known. What inspired the particular visual approach established by that project in particular?
“It originally began in a series ahead of the Icon series in which I worked with pictures from a book called Nuova Enciclopedia del Calcio Italiano, which was an anthology about Italian football, released every year in the 1970s, summing up the season. There were many players depicted in it; not just the country’s best but also from the lower divisions, Serie C etc.
“What I recognised in these pictures was that a lot of these players had an aura like people on old paintings like Giotto or Pinturicchio and others, especially those painting saints. It was that stoic, calm, forward gaz,e which had something other-worldly, that grabbed me. So that’s where all started. From then on I began to collect many many pictures of footballers with that special feel.”
In a world that seems to be heading evermore towards a love of digital art, could you tell us a little about the process behind making these pieces and why you work primarily in an ostensibly physical, painterly form?
“If you work with a historic tradition of images like religious icons it’s obvious to work with the material they used back then. For me, it’s a lot about authenticity. Painting is one thing but using real gold is the part of the works which really transforms the pieces into something original. You simply cannot reproduce the presence of gold leaf by using a computer.
“The other thing is that I’m always working with analogue techniques. It’s not that I am too old for digital art or anything like that, I’m just very tactile, I like the feel of materials, surfaces, textures. Of course, my work has been spread mainly by the internet, and is reproduced in prints, but an original painted piece is something special, something unique. It has a particular aura, a magic, which cannot really be reproduced by a screen. I like that.
“That does not mean that I hate the computer or do not use it for my work. Mostly I do digital visualisations of the works first, especially when I work for a customer. In other series I also use it for composing before starting with my analogue techniques, and then it’s just painting — traditional technique. Lege artis.”
How do you go about choosing which players are, if you will, iconic enough to feature? Are they purely your own choices, footballing heroes that featured most regularly during your time growing up watching the game, or made by a knowledge of what your public will want to see?
“It’s a mixture of all. Mainly the project has been thought as a participative project; everybody could let me paint his or her personal icon on the basis of a fixed fee. The basic idea has been that all that retrospective admiration, transfiguration into something special is strictly subjective. So about half of the icon paintings are private commissions and some have been for magazines and clubs. The other half are the ones I like personally or some which fulfil an iconic status on the basis of their skills, attitude, loyalty, selflessness. I don’t care too much for the public needs, except, of course, when I get paid for it.”
There is an immense geographical and chronological range presented in the players featuring in Icons, from Pelé and Maradona to Ronaldo and Messi, through so many cult heroes along the way; Batistuta, Totti, Gerrard, Bergkamp, Cantona. What is the thought process behind deciding whether to paint them in the colours of their club or country and is it purely instinctive when you choose which exact portrait of theirs to paint, e.g. whether old or young?
“First, this project was strictly retro; the basic concept has a lot to do with the past. But slowly I came nearer to the present, mostly through commissions and the latest — in which I painted Kane, Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo for FourFourTwo — is, I suppose, the top end of this evolution.
“If a customer wants me to paint their hero they also decides which jersey, which age and so on. Together we talk and choose reference photos because it has to fit the client’s desires and also the conditions of the series. Sometimes I would choose other jerseys — the Bergkamp portrait I painted for example — but I respect the intentions of the customer. The ones I paint for myself are purely instinctive. I only aim to refer to the player’s time in which they brought the most impact to the game.”
In each of the paintings, the subjects are captured either mid-smile or staring ahead stoically, with a golden light behind them, not dissimilar to the way in which biblical figures were depicted in so many Renaissance paintings. This seems to comment on the deification of these footballers among their adoring fans; rendering portraits befitting of the god-like figures they become to the mortals who watch them. Do you feel as though this is a fitting analogy, that perhaps footballers are the heroes of today to many people?
“There is a theoretical base of the series which reflects religion. Since forever, religion has been used as a social tool that keeps people together. Through the history of mankind, people always have built structures of adoration, worship, prayer, etc. In our times, football includes many of those aspects; stadiums are the new cathedrals and so on. Of course, this is not something invented by me, many people – philosophers, theorists – have already written about that, I just brought together football and the old tradition of icon painting on a visual level.”
Lastly, are there any particular past projects of yours that fans of this one would most enjoy finding?
“I hope so. There was quite some response to the OneLove series of mine, and there are also some other football-themed series I’ve made which I’m most proud of. Have a look at my website. Buy a print. Be happy.”
Thanks to David Diehl for speaking to These Football Times as part of The Gallery. If you’re an artist for whom football remains the ultimate muse, and you’d like to feature in The Gallery, please email us with examples of your work.