by Kurt Bauer
Art and the bicycle . . . bicycle art . . . the bicycle as art. The idea of a relationship between this sweet machine and the world of creative expression has a lengthy, if spotty, history. Virtually from the get-go, the bicycle and the act of riding one became subjects for artists. Painters, sculptors, writers, and composers all celebrated the new, relatively affordable machine and its promise of speed, elegance, freedom, and fellowship. It required no feed or pasturage like a horse, so land ownership wasn’t a prerequisite to becoming a cyclist. Its simplicity meant that moderately mechanically inclined people could maintain and even repair it. The industrial boom provided a ready supply, and there seemed to be almost no end to the number of convenient retail outlets from which to obtain it. The bicycle was, in some ways, the smart phone of the 1880s and ‘90s, and it might be said to have had as great an impact on middle-class life and what has come to be called popular culture.
This impact—individual freedom of travel, solitude (or camaraderie if one chose), style, and the shrinking of distance through speed—can’t really be overestimated. Alas, neither can the kitschiness of early attempts by graphic artists to capture these elements on paper or canvas. Victorian era artists and illustrators such as lithographer Georges Massias and painter Gaston Noury produced numerous images primarily for the advertising purposes of cycle manufacturers, including these examples for Cycles Gladiator of suburban Paris. Their efforts to romanticize bicycles and bicycling are, to say the least, a little heavy-handed.
Eventually, cycling art ratcheted up the taste scale to what was at the time termed the “Mucha style,” but came to be known more generically as Art Nouveau. Czech painter Alfons Mucha came to Paris to study art in 1887 and supported himself by producing posters and magazine illustrations. His style, aspiring to harmonize his subjects with nature through emulation of nature’s curves and flowing lines, became enormously popular and swept Europe between 1890 and World War I, fostering many imitators and eventually influencing styles in furniture, ceramics, textiles, sculpture, and architecture.
The end of the 19th century represented a high point for graphic art focused on the bicycle, at least temporarily in terms of quantity (that is, until the second great bike boom of the 1960s and ‘70s) but not in terms of quality. The quantity of cycling-themed images leveled off as the cult of the bicycle began to fade and its place in the popular imagination was supplanted by the automobile and the airplane in turn. And as photography incubated into a serious and accepted graphic art form, as well as a practical medium for illustration and advertising, the demand for hand-crafted graphic representations of cycling subjects waned even further.
But like the machine itself, the bicycle’s position as a subject for ‘serious’ art remained stubbornly fixed.
Picasso’s Catalan and Parisian forerunner and friend Ramon Casas included it, for instance, in his Self-portrait, 1897.
Bauhaus Expressionists like Lyonel Feininger made use of it. The Bicycle Race, 1912.
As did Cubists such as Jean Metzinger. At the Cycle Race Track, 1914.
Surrealists, too. Salvador Dali’s Gondola above Burning Bicycles, 1937.
And reconstructed Cubo-figurative Populists (ahem). Fernand Léger, Les belles cyclistes, 1944.
But for many people, the most familiar and enduring link between graphic art and the bicycle, if for no other reason than that the relationship seems to be the most interesting, continues to be the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Born in 1864, Toulouse-Lautrec was a descendant of counts and viscounts, so he was born an aristocrat. But perhaps because his parents were first cousins, he was also, it is speculated, predisposed to develop congenital disease. Toulouse-Lautrec is thought to have displayed the symptoms of pycnodysostosis soon after fracturing both femurs in separate accidents around age 14. The breaks never properly healed, and his legs stopped growing. As an adult his upper body and torso developed normally, but he retained the leg length of a small child.
His physical limitations prevented him from pursuing many of the activities of his friends and classmates, so he threw himself into drawing and painting. And because he displayed early talent, his mother used her family’s influence to help Henri gain admission to a prestigious studio in Paris to continue his artistic career.
Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by the cosmopolitan scene in Paris and by the nightlife of Montmartre in particular. He befriended writers, philosophers, and aspiring artists like himself, including Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin. He began to emerge as an important and recognized Post-impressionist painter like his new friends.
La toilette, 1889.
The Clowness, 1895.
But knowing his new bohemian lifestyle would surely be met with disapproval by his family, and therefore likely put the squeeze on his resources, Henri sought a degree of financial independence, to be generated by creating advertising posters and illustrations for magazines, much like his contemporary, Mucha. Their artistic styles and their customers, though, contrasted significantly.
Unlike Mucha’s controlled and contrived pseudo-elegance, Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster style was almost primitive. His works appeared unstudied and quickly sketched, displaying economy of line, shade, and color, and an unmannered, almost haphazard-looking composition that conveyed noise, motion, and life. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and illustrations were ‘modern’ and in-your-face, and they caught the eye of more than one trend-setter in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Running in a dead heat with his burgeoning artistic reputation was Toulouse-Lautrec’s growing taste for the fast lane in various forms. He haunted the cafes, clubs, and bordellos of Montmartre every night, drinking absinthe and disporting with dancers, barmaids, and prostitutes. Days, however, would find him betting money at boxing or wrestling matches and horse races. These pastimes wouldn’t have been particularly surprising in any young man of means of his time, but Henri didn’t generally associate with other young men his age. He was introduced to ‘outdoor sports’ by one of his best poster patrons, the famous cabaret performer Aristide Bruant.
Bruant was a nightcub owner, comedian, and singer. He was enormously popular among the Montmartre crowd, and along with the equally popular dancer Jean Avril, represented Toulouse-Lautrec’s steadiest source of income.
Bruant was a sort of turn-of-the-century combination of Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. He was a talented and popular singer, but his nightclub act also featured stinging and witty insults directed at prominent members of the audience. It was taken as a sign that you were ‘someone’ in fin-de-siècle Paris if you were the target of one of Bruant’s barbs. His costume was just as much a trademark: broad-brimmed black hat, flowing red scarf, heavy black cape, tall riding boots. He is immediately recognizable to 21st-century viewers as the quintessential subject of Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster art.
But Bruante is important to us for two additional reasons: he generally eschewed other forms of transportation in favor of his bicycle, and, evidently, he introduced Toulouse-Lautrec to bicycle racing. Bruant took Henri to the Vélodrome de la Seine and the Vélodrome Buffalo, both then managed by Bruant’s acquaintance, the writer Tristan Bernard.
Toulouse-Lautrec became friends with Bernard, and the painter could be found at most of the important races promoted by his new friend. At these events Bernard introduced Toulouse-Lautrec to other prominent cycling personalities, including Louis Bougle, aka ‘Spoke,’ French representative of Britain’s Simpson bicycle chain company, as well as the riders Constant Huret (whose nephew, André, would manufacture dependable and lightweight derailleurs following his own racing career) and British world champion Jimmy Michael. Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells of cycle-racing culture—the crowds in the grandstand, the seemingly chaotic preparations in the infield, the laborious activity of the soigneurs and masseurs. Toulouse-Lautrec’s association with ‘Spoke’ would lead to a visit to London and an agreement for Henri to create his best-known cycling images, two of which were intended as advertising posters for Simpson.
The first depicts Jimmy Michael, Simpson’s most successful sponsored rider.
This attempt at a cycling poster was rejected by ‘Spoke’ and the Simpson firm because, although it more or less accurately depicted Simpson’s signature product, a strange patented hook-and-loop chain and chainring combo, it failed, in their opinion, to convey a sense of speed. The drawing shows ‘Spoke’ holding a stopwatch in the background. It’s suggested that the standing cyclist to the left is Arthur Zimmerman, the American world champion.
Zimmerman in fact became the sole focus of several Toulouse-Lautrec sketches:
Toulouse-Lautrec’s second attempt at a poster for Simpson was deemed acceptable, and the image has been continually reproduced in one form or another for nearly 120 years. It again shows a racer, in this instance Constant Huret, being paced by a multi. In the days before dependable motorbikes, such pacing machines were common in both road and track events.
Again we see Simpson’s strange-looking drivetrain, but the position of the featured rider and the addition of the two multi pacers on the back stretch of the track effectively suggest action. Once again, ‘Spoke’ appears standing in the infield. The artist had no doubt long since learned to appeal to the egos of his patrons.
In spite of what might be inferred from a fascination with sport, Toulouse-Lautrec’s cabaret-and-bordello lifestyle eventually caught up with him. He hosted frequent drinking parties where he offered up American-style cocktails to his guests, including one potent combination, called an 'earthquake,' made of equal parts absinthe and cognac. His heavy drinking and carousing eventually led to acute alcoholism, and he was committed to a sanatorium. When his demise became imminent, his family moved him to their estate in southern France, where he died from a combination of liver disease and syphilis in 1901.
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