Boccioni, Bicycles, the Prints of Thomas Yang

Seconds to Glory  (2016)

Seconds to Glory (2016)

It’s an opportune moment to explore the bicycle in art history. Chris Froome’s fourth Tour de France puts him within touching distance (some 23 days and 2,200 miles) of the all-time greats of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain. Since the Champs-Élysées, Prudential’s ‘Ride London’ was as popular as ever among amateurs and spectators alike—albeit, the local cabbies were less than impressed. So, this small article traces some of the connections between the bicycle and art. In particular, with reference to the print-works of Thomas Yang.

Tour de France enthusiasts are probably familiar with some of the Art Deco posters that have announced the race throughout the years. Before Art Deco, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Chaîne Simpson (1896) is a superb example of advertising in the emerging styles of Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau. Since then, several artists have incorporated bicycles into their work. Notably, Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles (2015) in which thousands of bicycles are welded together into an architectural structure. Nonetheless, let’s consider Ramon Casas’ Ramon Casas and Pere Romeu on a Tandem (1897) and Umberto Boccioni’s Dinamsismo di un Ciclista (1913) rather than, say, Chagall’s Bicycle Riders (1956) or Jean Metzinger’s Au Vélodrome (1912).  

Boccioni’s Futurism celebrated the dynamism of modernity. Surprisingly, the bicycle still figured in this violent kineticism despite the advent of the motorcar given its triumph over the former. In Barcelona, Casas’ Ramon Casas and Pere Romeu on a Tandem was paired with Ramon Casas and Pere Romeu in an Automobile (1901) which are sometimes subtitled as The End of the 19th Century and The Beginning of the 20th Century. Ramon Casas and Pere Romeu on a Tandem was originally annotated with the following inscription—it has since been painted over: ‘Per anar amb bicicleta, no’s pot dur l’esquena dreta’ meaning that ‘to ride a bicycle, you can’t have a straight back.’ No-one’s sure as to its exact meaning. It might be a reference to the unequal financial relation between Casas and Romeu. Or, it might mean their aversion to tradition, an aversion that was exemplified in their bohemian bar in which the painting originally hung, the legendary Els Quatre Gats.

In Italy, Boccioni’s ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’ (1910) co-written with Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini similarly declared for the breaking with tradition. ‘[D]own with mercenary restorers of antiquated incrustations! Down with archaeologists afflicted by chronic necrophilia! Down with critics, complacent pimps! Down with gouty academies and drunken and ignorant professors! Down!’[i] Instead, ‘[t]he gesture that we want to reproduce will no longer be a moment in the universal dynamism which has been stopped, but the dynamic sensation itself, perpetuated as such.’[ii] Casas undoubtedly broke with traditions; and yet, his modernisme is very still. It is a moment in dynamism whereas Boccioni’s Futurism is that dynamic sensation itself.    

Casas was generally apolitical—although, it’s impossible to be entirely apolitical in such a place as Catalonia—whereas Boccioni’s soft-spot for Fascism via Futurism is well-known. Nonetheless, Fascism would eventually side with the splendours of Ancient Rome over the dynamic aesthetic advanced by the Futurists. It’s worth mentioning that it also sponsored cycling despite Mussolini’s interest in motor-racing. In fact, when Gino Bartali won the 1938 Tour de France, he dedicated his victory to the Pope and not to Il Duce. Later, Bartali would work as a secret courier delivering forged documents to Jews in hiding from the Fascists. He was able to carry these secret messages and forgeries in the parts of his bicycle. He’d refuse for them to be searched, after all, he was a Tour de France winner, and said that the bicycle was too carefully calibrated for speed for any soldier to try and inspect it.

Going Solo  (2017)

Going Solo (2017)

Boccioni’s ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Painters’ (1910) which was also co-written with Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini, commanded its readers to ‘[r]egard art critics as useless and dangerous.’[1] I’m not going to deny that we’re useless. But dangerous? Really? Boccioni would surely have regarded Yang and Casas as one of those ‘sold-out poster painters, and shoddy, idiotic illustrators.’ And yet, I’ve got to say (in my useless if not dangerous profession) that there’s something very appealing in Yang’s prints. Seconds from Glory (2016) and Going Solo (2017) have got ‘something’ that might be called expressive minimalism. Moreover, this perfectly suits the bicycle as such. For e.g., the bicycle is one of the most—if not the most—efficient (energy for distance travelled) form of transportation ever designed. There’s nothing superfluous on a bicycle (apart from those gps computers some cyclists swear by) and over a century of racing has meant that each part is, perhaps, as highly engineered as they’ll ever need to be. Yang says that he’s ‘a fan of Chinese paintings and minimalism. I always wanted to use the one stroke Chinese painting technique in my bike art.’ He explains that Going Solo (2017) was meant ‘to celebrate the sweet solitude of cycling solo. That feeling when your bike, body, and mind flow at one with your surroundings.’ It’s also a question of ‘simplicity and clarity [to] lead to a good design…Chinese art uses mostly one colour, black. It sounds easy, but it’s actually not.’

I think you can find this expressive minimalism in other works of art that incorporate bicycles. Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913 [since lost] and 1951) and Pablo Picasso’s Bull’s Head (1942) than Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles. Duchamp’s celebrates the simple wheel (after all, what could be more perfect than a circle) atop a plain stool. It spins, as if it were a secular prayer wheel. Picasso’s Bull’s Head simply attaches some handlebars to a seat. As I’ve said, there’s nothing superfluous on a bicycle, and the pure simplicity of their forms works to create a strikingly effective and minimalist sculpture.

Finally, it’s often said that ‘art’ doesn’t interest anyone these days—unless you’ve got very deep pockets. Yang isn’t the traditional figure of the artist but rather works as the head of art and design in an advertising agency. I’m tempted to see this as something of the democratisation of art and criticism. After all, people are getting very good at curating their life around them. In a way, we’re all curators these days. We’re assembling the things that express us, around us. Yang describes how, ‘[a]s an avid cyclist, I was trawling through the web looking for a few cool cycling posters to put up in my apartment. I noticed that there weren’t many choices available.’ Yang thus decided ‘to create a series of designs that revolved around my love of cycling.’

Of course, there are many people who do exactly the same thing. Nonetheless, it’s exciting to be able to share something that’s been created and sustained by one’s passion. In this way, aren’t we also calling out with: ‘Down with gouty academics and drunken and ignorant professors! Down!’ Unlike Boccioni, Yang’s chosen passion isn’t going to lead to violence. There’s hardly an instrument more suited to peace in the world than the bicycle. It’s especially exciting to see it brought to art so gracefully. So, chapeau!

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[1] Boccioni, U. (1910). Manifesto of the futurist painters (pp. 62 63, 64). Milan: Poesia.

D.S. Graham