Dynamic Sequences of Giacomo Balla - The Abstract in Futurism
Jul 5, 2016
The martial artist Bruce Lee used to instruct his students to learn everything, keep what’s useful and then throw away the rest. This is precisely what abstract artists have done with the legacy of Giacomo Balla and the Futurists. Anyone who has ever read the Futurist Manifesto would have a difficult time accepting it in its entirety, if for no other reason than it brazenly advocates in favor of non-stop war. As one of the original signers of that manifesto, Giacomo Balla could also be difficult to advocate in favor of, personally. But if we can remove Balla’s political beliefs from his contribution to abstraction, only keeping what is useful to us, we can see that his contributions to the growth of abstract art are immense. His focus on painting speed, movement and light gave humanity a new aesthetic with which to confront the rapidly changing world.
Giacomo Balla and Dynamism
The word dynamism is an attempt to verbally condense the experience of all types of action. Speed is dynamic, movement is dynamic, sound is dynamic. Dynamism was at the heart of the cultural experience of anyone living in a global city at the turn of the 20th Century, when Giacomo Balla was coming into his maturity as a painter and as a teacher. The world was changing so fast at that time. Industry was ramping up on an almost unimaginable scale. And key forms of transportation that we take for granted today—the automobile and the airplane for example—were just then coming into widespread use.
Giacomo Balla - Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, Oil on canvas, 110 x 91 cm, Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Many artists were trying desperately to express their reaction to the changing pace of society. The Cubists famously attempted to convey time in their four-dimensional paintings. But the Futurists wanted more than just to show four dimensions in their work. They wanted to isolate the experience of speed and somehow convey that experience in a painting. Giacomo Balla was already an advocate for abstraction, having taught many of the other Futurists about Divisionist techniques, which abstracted color and form in order to trick the eye into completing an otherwise incomplete picture. Balla expanded on this form of abstraction, using evermore-intricate ways to capture the essence of Dynamism on a two-dimensional plane.
Giacomo Balla - Girl Running on a Balcony, 1912, Oil on canvas, 49.21 x 49.21 in.
In 1912, Balla painted Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, a painting that bridged the concept of Divisionism with his blossoming Futurist style. In the same way that Divisionists places tiny dots of different colors next to each other in hopes that the mind would mix the colors together, Balla placed tiny dots of the same color next to each other in hopes that the mind would complete the sense of movement that the image implied. In addition to the Divisionist technique visible on the canvas, Balla also used perspective and line on the painting’s background to depict speed.
Wassily Kandinsky - Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 4, 1914, Oil on canvas, 64 1/4 x 48 ¼ in., © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
That same year Balla painted Girl Running on a Balcony, which combines Pointillist use of color dots with his Futurist depiction of movement. Also evident in this work is Balla’s evolving sensibility toward the abstraction of light, as daylight seems to be flowing in from outside, interplaying with shadow and interior lighting. The result is depicted in geometric abstract shapes below the figure’s feet and streaks of negative space running through the image where the girl’s knee bends.
Portion of Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony (1912) enlarged beside Piet Mondrian’s geometric abstraction Composition With Gray and Light Brown (1918).
Balla then quickly moved on to completely abstract the fundamental concepts of Dynamism, creating works that focused entirely on perspective, line and color in order to convey the pure essence of movement, speed and light. This evolution is perfectly captured in his painting Abstract Speed + Sound, the aesthetic of which ties Futurism in with the work of purely abstract painters working at the time, such as Wassily Kandinsky.
An enlarged section of Balla’s Abstract Speed + Sound (1914) beside Serge Poliakoff’s seminal work of late Tachisme, Composition in Gray and Red (1964).
Balla’s Contemporary Influence
Although Futurist social and political ideals are woefully inadequate today, Balla’s aesthetic concerns live on thanks in part to his own willingness to encourage artists to destroy the thinking of the past. To quote the Futurist Manifesto that Balla signed, “What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream?”
John Monteith - (De) Construction (Re) Construction #7, 2013, Oil on Layered Drafting Film, 50 x 47.6 in
We can easily see the ways that Balla’s aesthetic experiments went on to influence future movements within abstraction. The formal elements of parts of his Futurist compositions suggest the work of a wide range of Modernist movements such as Geometric Abstraction, Art Informel and Post Painterly Abstraction. For fun we can even take segments of some of Balla’s own paintings and compare them directly to works by subsequent abstract painters. The formal similarities are undeniable.
Debra Ramsay - 7 colors within a Witch Hazel Blossom, 2015, Acrylic on polyester film, 8.3 x 11.8 in
The Future Now
Contemporary painters continue to find inspiration in the aesthetic concepts that Balla advanced, that the abstract use of line, color, plane and perspective can convey the attitude and essence of the current and coming culture. But while the Furturists sought to communicate what they considered to be “the culture,” as though the world only had one state of existence, contemporary artists see many simultaneous contemporary cultures.
Canadian artist John Monteith creates abstract works that capture the dynamism of modern urbanity. Using a visual language informed by the architectural surroundings of his own urban environments, he creates multi-dimensional works that simultaneously recall constructivist aesthetics, Futurist use of line and plane and a thoroughly contemporary sense of shifting forms and spaces.
The American artist Debra Ramsay strives in her work to express a much different contemporaneity, not that of the city but that of the country and nature. Her aesthetic is informed by color, line, plane and negative space. The colors Ramsay uses are informed by changes in the natural landscape. The patterns, forms and compositions in her work convey a different pace of movement than those of Monteith, and far different than the speed conveyed by Balla and the Futurists. But they speak to time passing nonetheless, and invite a different relationship to the now and to the future, one based on natural processes rather than the dominance of humans and machines.
Though Balla and the Futurists were unsuccessful in convincing the world that speed, power, violence and the utter destruction of history were the only way of creating a viable future, their desire to communicate Dynamism lives on. As each new generation of abstract artists strives to understand the complex Dynamism of the many contemporary worlds we live in, the legacy of Futurist aesthetics continues to guide their vision.
Featured Image: Giacomo Balla - Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913-1914, Oil on millboard, 21 1/2 x 30 1/8 in.
All images used for illustartive purposes only
By Phillip Barcio