Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A leading artist of the Futurist movement, Giacomo Balla differentiated himself from his fellow members by focusing less on the violence and power inherent within machines, and more on a personal envisioning of modern existence that was at once both lyrical and witty.
Street Light (1909)
Although if may take a minute or two to notice upon first viewing, when the initial onslaught of Street Light’s kaleidoscopic majesty subsides, a shape begins to flesh out around the exploded middle – a design that concurs with the title.This is not a sun obliterating within itself we must remember then, but a street light. One whose shape appears slightly anachronistic to the modern eye: the light having two poles which crest over it rather than one that keeps it perpendicular, the top of it a wizard hat that allows it to beam outward rather than a flattened roof which keeps its eyes down.
Below the lamp itself, there is a small curve inward which allows a golden purity to collect in a grin. Across the searing middle it seems as if a star is exploding:
Balla’s paint here is remarkably detailed, with all the various colours blending believable as if churning together amid unimaginable heat. Layers upon layers of tones coalesce to create a thick focal point which throbs and sways with a gripping intensity.
The sense then is of something mythic. The moon itself at the top right appearing but a longer flicker amongst many. With the omnipotence at the center worshipped and rushed at by continually inventive loops and ticks of paint drawn inward. Again though, Balla knows to remind us that this is but merely a lamp rather than a supernova. So he paints the exterior as gloomy aisles, dimmed spots where the seemingly limitless power of the light cannot affect.
Subservience as a thematic idea within Street Light feels valid as this is something common to the Futurists work as a whole. Those who praised and magnified the might of then nascent technology. Perhaps the visage of the lamp within their own time would’ve been far more exciting than its appearance to us today. Or, perhaps the painting is merely reminder that there is true beauty and marvel to be found within the everyday electrical devices that we now disregard in our daily interactions. To uphold the mundane is a common figuration in painting, regardless of the era. And here Balla touches on a consistent thread in a manner both edifying and invigorating.
Pessimism and Optimism (1923)
You would assume that the dominant black here is pessimism and the lighter blue shade mix is optimism. The more that Pessimism & Optimism is explored however, the less such surgical division seems necessary as the two appear to intersect and influence each other, just as the pure form of each emotion in reality is inevitably tempered by the other. Balla’s depiction then seems more of a rumination on the interaction between emotions amidst experience, rather than merely pitting the polar opposites against each other.
Pessimism is a thick, black, pointed shape, its long spiky talons thrusting out as an inquisitive parry. Across what seems its rear there is a panoply of small pyramids which ridge up in a sense of menacing proportion evoking an odd sense of unease. There is no softness, no relent from this angular frame. It seems to be perched mostly on a single, diatonic hoof, whose shape is mimicked in various forms throughout its body creating an expansive sense of the thing.
Optimism’s blue is far more interesting in its conception. It isn’t as on the nose as it could’ve been, indeed Balla might have employed more obvious greens & yellows, evoking jubilance and uplift. But he goes more for the cooler tones of blue and white, creating a sense that optimism is a thing to shade yourself with rather than to embody and cling to. The completeness of some of the shapes, in particular the deep ovals at the top right, are a wonder to behold in their execution. To the caustic definition of pessimism, optimism is a sea of soft waves and positive swoops.
As aforementioned, the two exist not as portraits individually however, but as interacting forces. Within the deepest pit of pessimism’s black we can still see shades of blue infused with its own colour. Likewise, optimism still holds shades of grey within its curve edges. Each emotion is one and the same.
This a painting to ruminate on for far longer than it seems. One whose message and subsequent technical expression is simple, yet the inference forces deep examination of both the canvas and oneself.
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