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Giacomo Balla

Italian, 1871 - 1958

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Giacomo Balla was born in Turin in 1871. At the age of nine, following the death of his father, an industrial chemist, he was put to work in a lithography shop. His only formal training seems to have been evening classes in drawing and a few months of regular attendance at the Accademia Albertina in Turin. His early farm scene March Lights of 1897 recalls the rough, rural landscapes of Jean-François Millet and his Italian equivalents. An incisive self-portrait from 1904 (now in the Banca d'Italia in Rome) is technically accomplished, as are the fluent portraits of his mother (1901) and his wife, Elisa (1905), in the same medium. These demonstrate Balla's ability to capture psychological as well as physical likenesses, an interest stated in his numerous journal entries, which show him to be as adept with words as he was at painting.

The currents of Socialism and utopian Idealism were gaining momentum in Italy around 1900. Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's The Fourth Estate, painted between 1898 and 1901, is an eloquent representation of the working class (foreshadowing Bernardo Bertolucci's epic 1976 film 1900), and in 1904 Balla produced a strikingly unsentimental triptych titled The Working Man's Day, in which anonymous laborers lounge in front of ambitious construction projects that proportionally dwarf them. Balla contributed ten paintings to the Esposizone Internazionale in Rome in 1911 that celebrate the results of an educational campaign aimed at migrant peasants in the Campagna and the Pontine marshes, and the works demonstrate a closely observed naturalism in the service of social concerns.

His style then developed in the direction of Divisionism, a generalized version of French Pointillism. He was fascinated with the symbolism of light, which prompted his highly original Street Light of 1909 (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which the feverish iridescence of the electric light outshines a crescent moon, reflecting the call to arms voiced by Futurism's chief theoretician, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: "Uccidiamo il chiaro di luna!" (Let's kill the moonlight!; Lista, Giovanni. Balla. Modena: Gallerie Foote d'Abisso, 1982, p. 503, no. 208).

By 1910, when Balla signed the first manifesto of Futurist painting, Manifèsto dei pittori futuristi, he had fixed on a path. The manifesto had first been published by Marinetti in 1909 in the Parisian periodical Le Figaro, underscoring its pan-European appeal. The Futurists were highly vocal and broadcast their grandiose aims to reconstruct the universe in publications such as Umberto Boccioni's Pittura, scultura futuriste (dinamismo plastico), published in Milan in 1914 with fifty-one reproductions of works by leading Futurist artists, including Balla. Another manifesto, issued in 1915, Ricostruzione futurista dell'universo, of which Balla was a signatory, expressed the group's utopian aim to reform all aspects of human endeavor: the shape and architecture of cities, furniture and clothing, typography and book design-even human customs, behavior, and language. They proposed to accomplish this through theater, photography, film, postal art, and the mass media of radio and the press. Balla designed a suit for himself in 1914-white, red, and green (the colors of the Italian flag) and angular in cut.

Although Futurism was a highly intellectual and genuinely inventive movement, the Futurists were not politically active, and they regarded Italy's participation in World War I (naively conflating the Italian protagonists with "poet-peoples") as an aesthetic exercise that would purge the country of its preoccupation with the past. Their belief in the intrinsic beauty and moral worth of the new machine age and their optimistic visions of human betterment through technology implied an anti-pluralistic and centralized control of policy, which briefly put them on a parallel course with Mussolini. Following Mussolini's consolidation of power in 1922, which entailed an adverse policy toward modernist art, their paths sharply diverged. After the mid-1930s Balla reverted to his early realism, the theories of his heyday long outmoded. He died in Rome in 1958 at the age of eighty-seven, surrounded by his adored daughters, whom he had always painted and who painted him.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 73.

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