Cars, dogs and ‘cheering up’ the universe: the Futurist visions of Giacomo Balla

The Italian artist’s career, currently being celebrated in Rome on the 150th anniversary of his birth, was impelled by Divisionism, Futurism and socialism — but perhaps above all, by movement


Giacomo Balla at his studio, 1930. Artwork: © DACS 2021

Born in Turin in 1871, Giacomo Balla lost his father, an industrial chemist, at the age of nine. The family’s financial position soon became precarious, and young Giacomo was obliged to take up work in a lithography workshop.

He would go on to study at Turin’s Accademia Albertina before moving to Rome in the mid-1890s, where he made his living as a caricaturist and portrait painter.

In 1900, he travelled to Paris to see the Exposition Universelle. Fascinated and confused in equal measure by that metropolis, he ended up staying for the best part of a year. It was there, fatefully, that he saw the chronophotographic experiments of the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey. These recorded successive, instantaneous stages of movement on a single photographic plate.

Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), Cantano i tronchi, 1906. Pastel on paper. 100 x 126.5 cm. Sold for €137,500 on 16 November 2021 at Christie’s in Milan

From Divisionism to socialism

In the early years of the 20th century, Balla fell under the spell of Divisionism. This was a radical Italian movement, so called because of its artists’ use of ‘divided’ (that is, individual) strokes of unmixed colour. The thinking was that these strokes would fuse optically at a certain distance, thus resulting in maximum luminosity.

Balla was part of a second generation of Divisionists — and much influenced by the likes of Angelo Morbelli and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo from the first. What set him apart from most other members of the group was a concern for humanitarian issues.

The unification of Italy in the mid-19th century had accelerated an industrial and technological advance, which gave rise to numerous social tensions. It was in this context that Balla produced works such as Il contadino (a portrait of a struggling farm worker, today found in Rome’s National Academy of Saint Luke).

At this time, he also designed covers for the weekly socialist newspaper Avanti della Domenica.

Futurism with Severini and Boccioni

In 1909 the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto, in which he exalted machines — and rejected anything that couldn’t be mechanised as irrelevant in the new century. ‘A roaring motor car… is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,’ he wrote, in denigration of the famous Greek sculpture.

Balla was enthused, to say the least, and his studio soon became a meeting point for Futurist artists, including his former students Gino Severini and Umberto Boccioni.

Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), Farfalle in movimento e fiori futuristi, circa 1924-25. Mixed media on tapestry. 219 x 80.9 cm. Sold for €100,000 on 16 November 2021 at Christie’s in Milan

Essentially, Futurism was about capturing in art the dynamism and energy of the modern world.

A celebrated early example by Balla in this vein was Street Light  (today part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), in which he depicted one of Rome’s first electric street lights. Balla now left the delicate mark-making of Divisionism behind, in this case replacing it with bold, spiky chevrons of illumination.

In 1912, he produced his most famous work — indeed, one of the most famous works of all Futurism: Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash. It portrays, in close-up, a dachshund being walked by its female owner. Balla got around the age-old problem of conveying bodily movement in a static image by presenting the pet’s legs, the woman’s feet and the leash as a flurry of blurry overlays.

The debt owed to Marey’s chronophotography in works such as this is clear. Boccioni declared himself ‘flabbergasted’ at how, in just two or three years, his former teacher had managed to effect a ‘complete transformation’ of his art.

In 1913, Balla decided to sell off all his pre-Futurist paintings at an antique dealership in Rome, stretching a large banner outside, which read: ‘Balla is dead. Here are sold the works of the late Balla’.

Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), Velocità astratta + paesaggio, 1914. Pastel on paper. 49.6 x 69.2 cm. Sold for €181,250 on 16 November 2021 at Christie’s in Milan

Motor cars and Abstract Velocity

Admittedly, the subject of a dog on a leash didn’t quite match Marinetti’s demands for the mechanical, but Balla had a lyrical sensibility that frequently came out in his art. He once said that the best way of ‘reconstructing the universe [would be] by cheering it up’.

Before long, however, Balla was capturing more characteristically Futurist fare, in the form of images of motor cars. He used to have a spot on corner of the Via Veneto, where he would sit day after day and study the vehicles passing by.

In 1913-14, he produced a stunning set of works known as Abstract Velocity, in which his kinetic examinations of old were supplanted by a move towards almost complete abstraction. In works such as Abstract Speed + Sound  (today found in the Guggenheim Museum in New York), Balla’s focus shifted from the moving object to the essence of movement itself.

It wasn’t cars that Balla was now depicting, so much as the dynamic sensation of speed — through freely cavorting lines, arcs and planes.

Balla the designer and creator of Casa Balla

Two paintings sold at Christie’s reveal what a master abstractionist Balla became: 1914’s Compenetrazione iridescente — Eucalyptus  and 1923’s Espansionauree di pessimismo ottimismo. (The latter captured an imagined battle between the dark, jagged vectors of Pessimism and the luminous, blue, swirling forms of Optimism.)

Futurism was more than just an art movement, however. It aimed at revolutionising all of society. Balla kept this firmly in mind, with various Futurist endeavours beyond the visual arts.

He designed clothing, from swimwear to footwear, as well as ceramics, toys, tapestries, whole suites of furniture, and interiors for a number of buildings, including nightclubs and shops.

‘There’s perhaps a mistaken view that Balla is somehow a figure of the Italian avant-garde rather than the international one’ — specialist Renato Pennisi

He even opened up his apartment to members of the public on Sunday afternoons. He regarded Casa Balla, filled as it was with his own kaleidoscopic creations, as an artwork in its own right.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth, the apartment has temporarily reopened to the public, after a two-year restoration under the direction of Rome’s Maxxi Museum.

The market for Balla

During the 1930s, Balla gradually dissociated himself from Futurism, returning to a more traditional form of representation that he would pursue for the rest of his life.

In 1955, he was invited to participate in the first edition of the now prestigious contemporary art festival, Documenta (held every five years in the German city of Kassel). Balla died in 1958, aged 86.

When it comes to the market for his work today, Renato Pennisi, director of Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s Italy, says that ‘it’s still quite conservative, with good margin for growth’. The aforementioned Compenetrazione iridescente — Eucalyptus  is one of no more than a dozen Ballas to have surpassed $1 million at auction.

Pennisi adds, ‘When you consider that his abstractions overlapped in time with Kandinsky’s, and that he was a pioneer of a movement as important as Futurism, he’s probably underestimated in the market.

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‘There’s perhaps a mistaken view that, despite the presence of his work in a number of institutions worldwide, Balla is somehow a figure of the Italian  avant-garde rather than the international one.’

Eight of the top 10 results for Ballas at auction have been for works made in the 1910s, while the other two were from the 1900s.

‘The Futurist works are the most recognisable,’ says Pennisi, ‘though my advice is to keep your eyes open for his earlier paintings. They’re much rarer on the market, but every bit as interesting.’

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