Imaging the Century - by Graeme Fife

The painter Maurice de Vlaminck, who, together with André Derain and Henri Matisse, originated the Fauvist school of painting, wrote of his early inspiration:

“My discovery of the world dates from the bicycle…it is to the bicycle that I owe my first astonished experience of outdoor life, my first excitements, my first sensations of space and freedom…My strongest emotions are rooted in those days riding along open roads, the view plunging down into the valley from the top of a hill, the roofs of houses way below seeming so close one could reach out and touch them and…the sea. It was this that inspired me to become a painter.”

The inspiration of art and the bicycle…Toulouse-Lautrec haunting the Buffalo velodrome in Paris, where he probably saw Henri Desgrange, father of the Tour de France beat the hour record in 1893…

The seductive world of the Six Day racing in the famous Vél d’Hiv, the jostling, swooping, frenetic pursuit on the wooden boards, round and round in what Ernest Hemingway called “the driving purity of speed”, this wonderful éclat of competition caught in swift cartoon by André Dunoyer de Segonzac at trackside, pad and pen to hand, sketching furiously to match the action, one of a number of painters fascinated by the world of the track…

The Cubist Juan Gris’s moody line drawing of Henri Pélissier after his victory in the Grande Boucle, 1923…his friend Fernand Léger, seen as a progenitor of Pop Art, evoking in his quirky studies of cyclists that time before the First World War, when workers were given paid holiday for the first time and used the new machine – cheap enough for their pocket - to escape the city and suburbs into the countryside in what had always been unimaginable: free time.

Léger’s contemporary Picasso making a pastiche bull’s head and horns from bicycle saddle and handlebars…René Magritte’s bicycle on a cigar, titled Etat de Grace…

Jean Balet’s curious formal portrait of six racing cyclists striped jerseys, white socks and caps, goggles, lined up with their with bikes in front of Notre Dame in Paris. Is this a hang-on-the-wall souvenir for a party of cyclo-tourists or a quintet of top professionals on the morning of the Grand Départ of the Tour de France?

Marcel Duchamps, who, to the outrage of establishment taste, entered an upturned urinal which he called Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917 – to the outrage of contemporary avant-gardisme, it was rejected. In another example of what he called his ready-made objets, he mounted a bicycle’s front forks, wheel without tyre in place, upside down in the slot of a kitchen chair, to symbolise lightness, perpetual motion, the constant flow of innovative idea.

The Tour de France began as a publicity stunt and publicity stunts need pictures. It was the grainy black and white photographs of the first Tour men which helped both to sell the papers and to inaugurate the mystique, the grip and timeless fascination of the race. Images which fasten the drama, the loneliness, the torment of three weeks round France’s hexagon and back to Paris. Emile Georget, hunched over the bars, first man across the Galibier in 1911, Robert Jacquinot consuming a bowl of soup in a café in Heurtoy legs caked with mud, bike propped against the table, René Vietto, in tears on the Puymorens, waiting for a replacement wheel, Bartali riding through the Casse Déserte, alone in the forbidding stony wilderness…routine press pictures but replete with back story. Celebrated shutterbugs pitched up, too - Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Robert Capa, Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson…

Despite the huge advances in technology and materials in the 150 years of its existence, the quintessential diamond frame of the bicycle’s first epiphany has not changed. It symbolises a perpetuum mobile of ingenuity and invention. And still it inspires an almost sacerdotal attachment in those who love the bike, the beautiful machine, in most cases rooted in that first moment when the bike moved free and they were riding.

So, too, the Tour de France is ever evolving, ever the same: man, bicycle, monstrous cols, punitive kilometres. We look into their face and eyes, the men who ride it, finish or do not finish it. They know better than anyone the truism that you can never say that you beat the Grande Boucle, only that on this occasion, at least, it did not beat you. We read their fatigue, their anguish, the elation at victory, the fierce intensity of effort way beyond the restraint of any vestige of common sense. The clothes they wear have changed, the ravaged expressions do not. The world they inhabit and bestride like the colossus, is, in the description of more than one writer, like a modern Odyssey, an epic of endeavour and fortitude of what sometimes appears to be inhuman proportion. We might take Milton’s pandaemonium – all the demons of Hell caterwauling in horrid fortissimo – as a parallel to the psychological din and fright which accompany those direst passages of physical and mental distress, what they call le calvaire. Did not the absurdist writer Alfred Jarry, who turned up at Chausson’s the composer’s funeral in racing silks, on a racing bike, conceive of Christ’s agonised journey to Calvary as an uphill bicycle race?

Jarry’s near contemporary, the poet Mallarmé, gave Impressionism one of its tenets: “Paint not the thing but the effect it produces.” This Straffon collection - in its own way a sort of Stations of another sort of cross - celebrating the hundred editions of the Tour de France has something of exactly that Impressionist spirit, a witty, perspicuous, funny, loving series of interlayered and deftly textured images, each evocative of the grandeur of this timeless modern phenomenon, the race for the Golden Fleece, and of its intimate moments, too. In each vignette, a particle of the Tour’s rich history – riders in an access of rage and frustration scrapping at the side of the road… Mâitre Jacques autographing a dishy woman’s leg…the apprehensive silence of riders entering the terrible cauldron of the mountains where ambition falters in the sheer audacity of even thinking about racing up there…and, Henri Desgrange, the man himself, father of the Tour, as tough as any hard-hat martinet on those he called his riders, but full to the brim of affection for them. He started it all, he kept it going through scandal, skulduggery and scapegrace incident as, more than once, his successors have had to do.

These prints are a lollapalooza, an egregious tribute to the great bike race. Sensitively conceived and beautifully produced, the collection pulses with that sentiment which pumps through the extraordinary events on the roads, every July since 1903, as the Giants of those roads add a new chapter to the saga: Vive le Tour.
All artwork, text and images © James Straffon 2024.