Life & Culture

Photos Capturing the Dawn of Motorcycle Culture in Europe

In the late 1960s, Swiss artist Olivier Mosset brought motorcycle culture to Europe – here we preview his new book, which captures this moment in subcultural history

50 years ago, France was marked by a period of student uprisings known today as ‘May 68’. For nearly two months, millions of people joined in a series of occupations, demonstrations, and general strikes nationwide that brought the country to a halt. The protests ignited an artistic movement that embraced the independent spirit of radicals, rebels, and renegades.

Swiss artist Olivier Mosset was living in Paris at the time and became close with group of bikers who maintained an outlaw lifestyle. When he bought his first motorcycle, a US Army surplus Harley Davidson, he helped start a motorcycle club, a phenomenon wholly unknown in Europe at the time.

Mosset’s studio on the Rue de Lappe doubled up as a hub of radical painting, a garage and a clubhouse for the Marxist-influenced bikers. As a painter, Mosset created monochromatic, geometric abstractions that conceptually reduced the image to its formal roots – and yet he couldn’t deny the allure of the motorcycle. Throughout his career, Mosset found inspiration in its mechanical form, pairing his paintings with sculptural readymades in the mid-90s.  

On May 25, Edition Patrick Frey will release Wheels, a retrospective of Mosset’s motorcycle work. Here Mosset looks back on enduring appeal of these icons of outlaw style.

“After May 68, I got a studio and got involved with some people who had motorcycles. They didn’t have Harleys, but at some point a friend had one for sale. I sold a painting the next day and bought a motorcycle. Motorcycles are interesting. Suddenly, you have girls saying, ‘Don’t you want to take me home?’ And I realised, ‘Ohh. You need a motorcycle and that’s it.’ (laughs).

“At one point, I realised that motorcycles are objects as well. They are not supposed to be art but have an aesthetic aspect as an object. The first time I put a motorcycle in an exhibition with some paintings it looked spectacular – especially since my own work is not that spectacular. I tried to invent. I do that for myself. There’s something selfish about motorcycles in art. I’m not telling anyone anything. There’s an object and people have to relay that or not. I don’t care that much, to be honest.

“There’s something about people who ride motorcycles. They are people who want to change society. The nice thing about motorcyclists in a club is that they want to do it for themselves. You don’t need everyone to have one; you just want yours. It’s a statement. It’s somehow like art: you do something, not because there is something you are trying to get – you want to do your thing. It has to have its own integrity and that’s enough. If you have ever been on a motorcycle, then you know! (laughs).”

Wheels by Olivier Mosset, published by Edition Patrick Frey, is out June 8