Words: Colin O’Brien Images: courtesy of Peggy Guggenheim Collection
“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.
Extract from issue 35, available from Friday 30th