January 06, 2004

Before and After the Future

Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) is chiefly known, and rightly so, as a futurist artist: between about 1910 to 1930 he produced hundreds of more-or-less abstract studies of motion, colour and form. Yet his pre-futurist work, much of it in a divisionist vein, is often fascinating too, and, whilst his post-futurist paintings are often conventional and sentimental, they are seldom lacking in warmth or charm.

'Fallimento', Giacomo Balla, 1902.

Balla was born and raised in Turin. Although he studied for a short period at a Torinese fine-arts academy, he is supposed, for the most part, to have taught himself how to paint. In 1895 he relocated to Rome, where lived most of the rest of his life. Much of his early work bears the influence of Seurat, and, ca 1902, he began to teach the divisionist techniques he had acquired to two young students, Gino Severini and Umberto Boccioni, both of whom would go on to become prominent futurists.

La Giornata dell'Operaio, Giacomo Balla, 1904.

As well as a fascination with formal concerns of colour and light, several of Balla’s canvases from this period suggest a strong social conscience at work, most strikingly, perhaps, in a series of four related works collectively entitled Ciclo dei Viventi, ‘Cycle of the Living’, in which marginalised figures - the madwoman and the sick elderly couple (shown below); the labouring smallholder and the beggar, are depicted with affecting sympathy.

'La Pazza', Giacomo Balla, 1905. 'I malati', Giacomo Balla, 1903.

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Boccioni caught the futurist bug in Paris, 1909, from Apollinaire, passing it on to his former teacher the following year. Although Balla effectively signed up to Marinetti’s program in 1910, and produced the electric work below later that year, it wasn’t until 1912 that his work as a futurist began in earnest.

Lampada ad Arco, Giacomo Balla, 1910.


'Le Frecce della Vita', Giacomo Balla, 1928.

Balla, like most of the Italian futurists, supported Mussolini and the Fascists, although perhaps less stridently than some. As the 1920s wore on, Balla’s commitment to futurism slowly diminished, and figurative elements began to re-emerge in his paintings beginning ca 1926. Le Frecce della Vita ‘The Arrows of Life’ dating from 1928 (above) is one of his finest late-futurist pieces.

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From the 1930s, Balla’s work took on an inimate and a private character. He painted from nature for his own amusement, and he made portraits of his wife, his two daughters, and their friends. Many of the portraits seem influenced, as much as anything, by a kind of Hollywood-style notion of glamour, as for example, in the following piece.

'Le Quattro Stagioni in Rosso - Autunno', Giacomo Balla, 1940.

By the late ’30s, as Italy slid toward disaster, Balla had renounced his support for Mussolini’s regime. Some of his wartime works such as La Fila per l’Agnello ‘The Queue for Lamb’, below, show his social conscience of old had not deserted him.

'La Fila per l'Agnello', Giacomo Balla, 1942.

The thread which shines brightest through Balla’s late work, however, is of simple joy in his family, and of their life together, and of his devotion to them. There is one heartbreakingly lovely picture (not shown here) of his elder daughter embracing her mother, who was ill at that time - its title: Non mi Lasciare ‘Don‘t Leave Me.’ The picture below, Noi Quattro nello Specchio ‘Us Four in the Mirror’ shows the family Balla in happier times…

'Noi Quattro nello Specchio’', Giacomo Balla, 1945.

Even though I’ve sidestepped most of Balla’s futurist output here, I should add that I like a good deal of that too. I personally tend to respond to the qualities in certain artists’ personalities, almost regardless of the -isms to which they may subscribe, and there was something congenial and likeable about Balla that comes across from his austere abstractions and his sentimental family portraits alike.

I scanned the images above from my copy of Giovanni Lista’s monograph on Balla, published by the Galleria Fonte d’Abisso in Modena, in 1982. Click on the images to see (much) larger versions of the same.

Posted by misteraitch at January 6, 2004 08:41 PM | TrackBack

I didn't know any of that about Balla. Great article. Thank you.

Posted by: Duckling on January 8, 2004 10:14 AM

Nice Balla overview! Futurism is tough. Great art, terrible ideology. Balla is wonderful (I'm pretty sure he wrote a manifesto - they all did). I like Balla's dog painting with the swishy legs. It's fun. I can't say I like so much his realist work but there's a tenderness there that got smashed by his changing politics. There's no question the fame of Brancusi and Boccioni eclipsed Balla, whose work is also important. I think futurism and futurist art resonates with meaning for our current moment if people could see that. I'm not saying everybody should read the Cantos but some of the manifestos (which can be found online) relfect something of the kinds of scary ideas that are coming back into fashion.

Posted by: Mel on January 9, 2004 09:01 PM

hi, does anyone know of a website with a picture of Balla's painting "Portrait of my Mother" from 1901? I saw it at the Guggenheim in New York and unfortunately cannot find a copy of this beautiful piece.
please email me at pollyfilla61@hotmail.com

Thank You

Posted by: Polly on April 11, 2004 08:48 PM

May i have the image of pazza more big? Is really important

Posted by: Anna Gigante on July 30, 2004 12:11 AM

This is truly a remarcable site on Giacomo Balla. Right now I am studying him for an art course and I truly appreciate the people whom are responsible for it. Its packed with not only information, but some of his work was added and that help me to more in touch with the artist and the written work itself. So I thank you again.

Posted by: Diane Forest on November 29, 2004 08:23 PM
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