The Bicycle in Art: A Universal Symbol of Progress

This 19th century image uses symbols of youth and age and the rightward-moving bicycle to evoke thoughts of a bright future. Photo: Copenhagenize

Bicyclists understand: the beauty, the simplicity, the feeling of almost flying. Surely, few of man’s inventions have been responsible for as much human happiness as the bicycle.

It turns out artists know this too. Across cultures and generations, the bicycle is a powerful symbol of hope and progress. Mikael Colville-Andersen at Network blog Copenhagenize has been doing his research:

The Bicycle as a symbol of progress, of renewal, of promising times ahead — this is not a new concept. Indeed it has been around since the invention of the bicycle. Many bicycle posters at end of the 19th century featured promising themes like liberation, progress, freedom.

When people in most cultures see art or photgraphy, our brain sees movement from left to right and interprets the piece based on that. In the vintage poster, the youthful girl in pure white is tossing flowers about her as she rides from left to right. She is heading towards the future, moving away from us. Perhaps even spreading flowers to encourage us to follow her. The old, frail woman sitting amongst thorns has her back firmly to the future, head in her hand and almost resigned to the fact that she won’t – or can’t – be a part of the glowing future.

Or how about a more recent example:

Indian politician Akhilesh Yadav just won election behind this flag. Photo: Copenhagenize

[This] is the party flag for the Samajwadi political party in India. Their rising star, Akhilesh Yadav, recently won a landslide election in the Uttar Pradesh state elections. Yadav campaigned tirelessly and he rode hundreds of kilometres around the state on his bicycle and organised bicycle rides. Reuters has an article about his rise to power. He thrashed the heir-apparent in Indian politics, Rahul Ghandi of THE Ghandis by appealing to the working classes, sleeping in villagers huts and aligning himself with the demands of the regular citizens. And the man can even text and cycle at the same time. He’s got our vote.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Pattern Cities reports that Los Angeles has seized on roadspace-to-public-plazas conversions pioneered by New York. The Virginia Bicycling Federation wonders whether we will see a long-term transportation bill passed in 2012. And This Big City explores how individual identity is tied up in the unique culture of one’s city.