Jean Metzinger: Cubism and Moser in Venice

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Kandinsky, Braque, Bacon… Moser? We’re in Venice, for an exhibition of paintings. In a city without streets or bikes, writing about art for a cycling magazine

Photographs: Paolo Ciaberta
Francesco Moser pic: Paolo Ciaberta

Words by Colin O’Brien


Kandinsky, Braque, Bacon… Moser? We’re in Venice, for an exhibition of paintings. In a city without streets or bikes, writing about art for a cycling magazine.


In that uniquely Venetian way, it is sticky humid and raining at the same time. The clouds above are thick and grey and the canals an unnatural hue of green. It’s still summer but today seems autumnal and there’s a strong breeze rippling the water and sending the odd wave splashing up above the mossy, weathered steps and onto the footpaths.


The Grand Canal is full of vaporetti, the water buses that constitute the only realistic means of transport other than – God forbid – walking, for the Great Unwashed in Venice. Unless you want to ride in a gondola, right to the ATM, which it seems plenty do.


Below, there’s a trio of gondoliers in full voice, giving the tourists aboard their money’s worth. Those tourists don’t understand a word, of course, and they busy themselves taking bad pictures and drinking wine out of plastic cups.


On the roof of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, once home to Peggy Guggenheim and now home to the gallery named after her, there’s no such tacky nonsense. We’re being treated to another sort of ridiculousness altogether. By my count, the speeches have been going for over an hour and I still have no idea what they’re trying to convey or what conclusion they’ll come to.

Guggenhiem museum pic: Paolo Ciaberta

Cycling, Cubo-Futurism and the Fourth Dimension says the invitation; an event meant to mark the exhibition of some seminal cubist and futurist works. The centrepiece is Jean Metzinger’s At the Cycle-Race Track, 1912, but the sculptures of Umberto Boccioni aren’t bad either, you know. This is a celebration of mechanical, motional art born out of a time when modernity and mass movement were the battle cries of progress and when the most forward thinking all rode a quirky new invention called a bicycle. Or at least it’s supposed to be.


“The Cubism of the Paris-Roubaix,” says Giorgio Squinzi, the chief executive of Mapei, a company that makes glue and which, for a time, sponsored a cycling team. “The futurism of speed records, the fourth dimension of a Tour de France never won, ever coveted, ever cursed, that condemned us to stand helpless, immobilised and defeated on the sidelines.”


For proof of Einstein’s theory of gravitational time dilation – time passing at different rates in regions of different gravitational potential – look no further than events like this. An hour feels like a day when the suits get to talking. You can almost see the seconds being pulled and stretched by the massive force of ego.


On the table sits the block of granite awarded to the late Franco Ballerini for his 1995 Roubaix and it doesn’t half resemble a tesseract – the cube revolving around an internal, impossible axis that is often used to convey in three dimensions what the reality of a fourth might look like. Would Metzinger and his peers approve? Hard to say.


Who are the Friends of Paris-Roubaix?


They were certainly fascinated with cycling. “We would often cross the broad avenue with the martial sounding name,” reads an interesting entry in Metzinger’s diary. “The one that separated Courbevoie from Puteaux. It was in the peaceful garden of that welcoming household only a few years before the terrible year of 1914 that forms were born that, 50 years later, one would still think were new! We returned there often and soon we were spending our Sunday afternoons not merely conversing about aesthetic novelties but rather kicking a ball around or indulging in a spot of archery.


“That garden was the place where my appearance as a cyclist at the Vélodrome d’Hiver was thought up. Gleizes and Villon claimed that I wouldn’t be able to cycle 100 kilometres without putting a foot on the ground. I bet them that I could for the price of a lunch. It’s actually a pretty hard thing to do to keep going over 100 kilometres on country roads. Neither of my opponents had a car and they didn’t want to chase after me on one of those velocipedes. A journalist from our circle of friends suggested cycling in a velodrome which is actually just as tiring, especially for someone who is not used to it. But I agreed. A few days later, one morning at ten, I began my laps in the Vélodrome d’Hiver. An hour went by and then another. The spectators, Fernand Léger was among them, cheered me on with increasing enthusiasm until quite unexpectedly the sound of a gong brought me to a halt. I had won my meal by my honourable average speed.”


I’m not sure what’s harder to grasp: the fourth dimension that Metzinger & Co. were trying to paint, or the sensation of novelty that the bicycle evoked in them. It’s always the way with a great invention – they seem so obvious that surely they must have always been with us. For the cubists and the futurists, the locomotion of a cyclist was exactly what they were after. No still life, no nature morte. The competitive cyclist was vitality at its most vibrant.


One hundred years after it was painted, At the Cycle-Race Track still seems fresh. Using the frozen, visual language of cubism, Metzinger depicts the movement and speed of cycling in a way that all but the best photography fails to. The Frenchman is less known today than many of his contemporaries but few were more influential than him. He exhibited with the best and was one half of the pair that wrote the book – literally, I mean – on cubism.


Born in Nantes in June 1883, Metzinger’s was a life of ups and downs, marked by personal tragedy, early success and later irrelevance (he’d have had plenty in common with one or two of today’s professional cyclists). A firm believer in the avant-garde, he moved to Paris as a young man after some early paintings of his received warm receptions in the capital. He was in the Salle 41 group showing at the influential 1911 Salon des Indépendants, when cubism grabbed the attention of the world. And he was in the velodrome at Roubaix the following year to capture Charles Crupelandt’s victory.


The painting is fascinating for the way it bends perspective and time to hint at the movement of the cyclist. The side to side pivots, generating power to propel him forward. Neurophysiology tells us that space is only perceived – that we construct an aesthetic preference out of it. Metzinger’s trying to unify that idea. His static images can be seen together, all at once, revealing the infinite nature of space time and the champion’s immortal, everlasting position in it. This is your sport as an n-dimension.


Something called parallax played a large part in how the cubists and the futurists saw the world. And, subconsciously, it informs our view of a cycle race as well. Bear with me.


Canvassing Opinion: Painting the Giro d’Italia


We all know that distance isn’t the only thing to consider in a race. A lone breakaway might well be several kilometres further up the road than the chasing pack but once his legs give out he’ll be swallowed up and spat out the other end. This is perspective, metaphorically speaking. The parallax of the peloton. It measures the displacement in the apparent position of an object viewed along different lines of sight.


For an illustration of what parallax actually is, pick an object in the distance and hold your finger in front of it. Now close one eye, then open it and close the other. That shift in the apparent position of your finger is what Metzinger was interested in. The bike in his painting has two handlebars. Or one handlebar in two places. Or really, one handlebar in one place in two positions of perspective.


Guys like Jean Metzinger considered themselves to be at the forefront of modernity; innovators who placed their work alongside science’s latest advances in terms of importance. It was a time of discovery and rapid change and no doubt they wanted to link their own revolutionary art to the latest developments in engineering and mathematics. New research into higher dimensions must have been irresistible. What better way to break the bonds of the past than to shun the very way in which their predecessors had understood the world?


With a fourth dimension, cubists could explain their strange compositions, their multiple viewpoints. The Renaissance only had one perspective but they had two, three. How many do you want? There were endless perspectives all wrapped up in one another, bending light and time into infinite possibilities. These ideas challenged society’s cherished conceptions of absolute truth – making their work a powerful symbol of resistance and revolution.


Metzinger actually claimed that he saw and felt a fourth dimension. Is that possible? We know that many of us possess a condition called synaesthesia, meaning that one sense stimulates a reaction in another sense. The great painter Wassily Kandinsky saw colours when he heard sounds. Maybe Moser tasted victory when he saw the finish line in Roubaix. When I bother to listen to the speeches – still going, incredibly, in seemingly perpetual motion – I smell something that normally comes out of a different orifice.


As is the Italian style, everyone’s saying two or three times as much as is strictly necessary. And none of it has anything to do with the paintings or the cyclist present. Francesco Moser is sitting politely, but he’s uninterested. He’s looking at the floor, his arms, out over the canal – everywhere except the audience. He is, figuratively at least, somewhere else completely. Trento perhaps, where he owns a great big vineyard and a grand house overlooking the city below, his vines and the Dolomites looming in the distance. Is he riding through the rows of grapes on that old mountain bike – bearing his name, of course – with the dogs by his side? I’ve seen him there.


On the screen I’ve seen him, too, riding through weather like today’s over the Via Libertà bridge and on to victory here, in Venice, in the 14th stage of 1978’s Giro d’Italia. Somewhere in the world, someone is watching Jørgen Leth’s A Sunday in Hell, and he’s there too, rocketing towards Roubaix with Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens and Roger De Vlaeminck. He’s in the velodrome and on the podium and he’s sharing a joke with his brothers and a meal with his family. He’s doing all of those things, because time is not linear. We only perceive it thus.


Suddenly, it’s Moser’s turn to speak and we jolt back to this dimension with a smile. The clouds part and the talk turns to the Paris-Roubaix… and the all-consuming cubism of the pavé.


From issue 35 of Rouleur magazine

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