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19 December 2016 No comments

The Dream of Perpetual Motion

By Jack Thurston
The Dream of Perpetual Motion

Have you ever ridden 100km without putting a foot down? Could you? In the early years of the twentieth century, this cycling challenge was the subject of a bet between French avant garde artists Jean Metzinger, Jacques Villon and Albert Gleizes. The wager was made in Villon’s garden in Puteaux, a suburb on the western outskirts of Paris, where a small circle would regularly hang out to discuss the theories underpinning the aesthetic movement that became known as Cubism (pictured below are Villon and his brothers Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp-Villon).

I like to imagine these cycling Cubists riding out to Puteaux from Montmartre, passing beneath the sails of the Moulin Rouge cabaret, making a right turn at the Arc de Triomphe and rolling along on the long, wide boulevard to Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Villon’s brother Marcel Duchamps had his studio.


Cubism's big idea was to convey form, space, movement and the passage of time by breaking free from the limitations of a single, static point of view. The bicycle must have been the perfect muse. It is impossible, when riding a bike, not to see the world from multiple viewpoints and ever changing perspectives. A bicycle rider is a study in movement and energy, and racing cyclists feature prominently among the subjects of Cubist and Futurist paintings. Fernand Léger, another member of the Puteaux Group, saw cycling as a fusion of man and machine:

"A bicycle operates in the realm of light. It takes control of legs, arms and body, which move on it, by it and under it. Rounded thighs become pistons, which rise or fall, fast or slow."

The smooth, quiet efficiency of a spinning bicycle wheel is mesmerising, even off the bike. When Marcel Duchamps mounted a bicycle fork and wheel on a wooden stool it wasn’t meant as a work of art. "It was just for my own use”, he later explained,

“To set the wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day. I liked the idea of having a bicycle wheel in my studio. I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoyed looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace. It was like having a fireplace in my studio, the movement of the wheel reminded me of the movement of flames.”

If speed is a defining feature of modernity at the turn of the twentieth century, then cyclists were the very first speed freaks. In his 1896 comic novel The Wheels of Chance, H.G. Wells introduces the villain Bechamel as “very red and moist and angry in the face” having ridden from Guildford to Esher in under an hour. He then explains the reason for his frenzied condition:

“I came out for exercise, gentle exercise, and to notice the scenery and to botanise. And no sooner do I get on the accursed machine, than off I go hammer and tongs; I never look to right or left, never notice a flower, never see a view, get hot, juicy, red, like a grilled chop... It’s a most interesting road, birds and trees, I’ve no doubt, and wayside flowers, and there’s nothing I should enjoy more than watching them. But I can’t. Get me on that machine, and I have to go. Get me on anything, and I have to go. And I don’t want to go a bit. Why should a man rush about like a rocket, all pace and fizzle? Why? It makes me furious. I can assure you, sir, I go scorching along the road, and cursing aloud at myself for doing it.”

It's easy to identify with Bechamel’s uncontrollable urge to 'scorch'. Once the endorphins are flowing and you’re going well and feeling good, why would you want to stop? And when you’re having a bad moment, there’s danger in stopping: you might never get back on again, so you keep on pushing. These feelings are heightened when riding a fixed wheel: you belong to the bike and the pedals demand you to keep going.

Like Wells, the eccentric French writer Alfred Jarry (pictured, below) was an avid cyclist who thought of his bike as his 'external skeleton'. In his phantasmagorical novella The Supermale, Jarry describes a superhuman 10,000 mile bike race in which the riders in a 5-man tandem go for days at speeds as high as 300 kilometres an hour, thanks to a powerful substance called “Perpetual Motion Food”, a not especially subtle allusion to biochemical enhancement in sport.

As the hottest new technology of the turn of the century it's little wonder the bicycle appealed to those with an interest in scientific discovery. "I thought of it while riding my bicycle", said Albert Einstein about his theory of special relativity - a fundamental rethinking of space and time that paralleled and underpinned Cubism.

In the end, and presumably without consumption of Perpetual Motion Food, Jean Metzinger succeeded in riding his 100 kilometres without putting a foot down and won the bet. Though he had intended to do the ride on country roads, but no-one had a car and his friends weren’t up to following him by bike. Instead, he did laps at the famous Velodrome d’Hiver, with the leading lights of the Parisian avant garde cheering him on.

Though bicycles have long since given up the title of fastest things on the roads, the sensation of speed and the dream of perpetual motion remains a big part of the appeal of cycling and people will forever be pushing the limits of how far and how fast they can ride. On our ever more crowded and congested roads, riding a 'Metzinger' (100 kilometres without putting a foot down) is still a challenge worthy of a modest wager among friends.

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Three paintings by Jean Metzinger depicting racing cyclists were part of a temporary exhihibition entitled Cycling, Cubo-Futurism, and the Fourth Dimension at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. They can be viewed, along with works by Italian Futurists, in a virtual gallery tour.