Giacomo Balla (1871-1958)

Giacomo Balla, who was born in Turin in 1871, was an Italian artist and founding member of the Futurist movement in painting. In his paintings he depicted light, movement and speed.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract speed+ sound, 1913

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Giacomo Balla was an Italian Futurist artist known for his geometric paintings that depicted light and movement. His work, influenced by contemporaries Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, was inspired by technology and industrialization.

Early life

At age nine, after the death of his father, he gave up music and began working in a lithograph print shop. By age 20, his interest in visual art had developed to such a level that he decided to study painting at local academies, and several of his early works were shown at exhibitions. Following academic studies at the University of Turin, Balla moved to Rome in 1895, where he met and later married Elisa Marcucci. For several years he worked in Rome as an illustrator, caricaturist and portrait painter. In 1899, his work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale, and in the ensuing years his art was shown at major exhibitions in Rome and Venice, as well as in Munich, Berlin and Düsseldorf, at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, and at galleries in Rotterdam.

Giacomo Balla, Girl running on the balcony, 1912

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Around 1902, he taught Divisionist techniques to Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini. Influenced by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Giacomo Balla adopted the Futurism style, creating a pictorial depiction of light, movement and speed. He was a signatory of the Futurist Manifesto in 1910.

The futurist period

Giacomo Balla, Arc lamp, 1911

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Balla was among those who signed the Manifesto of the Futurist artists and the technical Manifesto of futurist art in 1910. In spite of his adhesion to modern themes, until 1912 he continued with his pointillist style as in his painting “The Arc Lamp” (Lampada ad arco) of 1909, a work included in the catalogue of the futurist exhibition of 1912 at the Galerie Berhnheim-Jeune in Paris, although in fact it was not exhibited there. Right from the start, his interest in science, the chronophotography of Etienne Jules Marey and the photodynamic works of Anton Giulio Bragaglia induced Balla to follow a very different style and idea of futurism to that of Boccioni.

The theatre and futurism

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In 1914 he took part as actor and art director in theatrical performances of Francesco Cangiullo, and composed “Words at liberty” (Parole in libertà). In 1915, together with Depero he published the futurist reconstruction of the universe manifesto that augured an aesthetic futurist application to fashion, decor and all other aspects of modern life. Together they produced a series of non -figurative constructions, or plastic art, in cardboard, sheet metal, silk and other every day materials.  Between 1914 and 1915 Balla composed the interview display cycle, in which he declaimed  the futurist artists’ patriotic enthusiasm for Italy’s entry into the war. During the war years his study became the meeting place for young artists. In 1917 he designed the scenes for  Segei Diaghilev ‘s Fireworks ballet, with music by Igor Stravinski.

Decorative art

With increasing passion, Balla dedicated himself to decorative art, and in 1920 opened his Nicolò Porpora house to exhibit the first vividly coloured setting. Between 1921 and 1922 he designed the Tic-Tac Bal – a dance hall in futurist style, and in 1925 with Depero and Prampolini he took part at the Exposition des arts dècoratifs (decorative art exhibition) in Paris. He was so struck by Rodchenko and El Lissitsk’s Russian pavilion   and “L’Esprit Nouveau” pavilion of Le Corbusier that this inspired him to create constructivist-inspired works such as “Enamoured numbers” (Numeri innamorati) in 1923, which is also close to the mechanical images of Ivo Pannaggi and Vinicio Paladini.

Giacomo Balla, floreal decorations, 1920

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At the end of the ‘thirties, Balla broke away from futurism, convinced that pure art has to express absolute realism, without which it would fall into an ornamental and decorative form. In spite of a brief period of success in the ‘fifties, during which his futurist works were esteemed by the younger generation of abstract painters, the “Origin” group, who arranged an exhibition of his works in 1951, Balla’s style remained figurative until his death.

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