Scientist of the Day - Giacomo Balla
Giacomo Balla, an Italian painter, was born July 18, 1871. In spite of our heading, Balla was not a scientist, even for a day, but he did like to like to paint speeding automobiles and flying birds, and he even made paintings of the planets, so he was definitely poaching on the boundaries of art and science, enough so to invade our space today.
Balla was one of the founders of Italian Futurism, an art movement that sprang out of Cubism in 1910 and that embraced the machine age and the uproar and speed that came with it. Futurists sought ways to capture rapidly moving objects on the painted surface, and invented techniques to capture the changing play of light on moving things, especially shiny things like automobiles. Balla’s Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences (1913), in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, does a wonderful job (in our opinion) of portraying speedy swifts flying past a window (first image). Speeding Automobile (1913), also in the Museum of Modern Art, tries to do the same thing with a car rushing by (second image). We don’t know how fast cars could move in 1912, but the driver is clearly leaning into a forceful airstream, as the chassis diffracts into multiple versions of itself.
Abstract Speed + Sound, in the Guggenheim Collection (1913-14), is even more abstract than Speeding Automobile, as Balla concentrates on portraying the splintering of light from the race cars, and the cacophony of sound they produce (third image). You can see why a Futurist might be considered a Cubist on speed, if you don't mind the double entendre.
Why Balla decided to paint a transit of Mercury is a mystery, since transiting planets are quite unlike speeding cars, in that you can hardly see them move. But the passage of Mercury across the sun on Nov. 7, 1914, apparently got Balla's attention, and he painted at least four versions of the event that we know of. Here is one, at an unknown location (fourth image); we could have chosen the version that is known to be at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, but we like this one better. Futurism was on the ascent just before World War I; Balla’s pupil and fellow Futurist Umberto Boccioni died in 1916, when Futurism was at a high point; but poor Balla lived another 40 years, a much attenuated Futurist in an age of Dadists and Surrealists. Late in life, Balla designed some Futurist "flowers", intended to be executed as sculptures, but he never gave them three-dimensional form.
After his death, his two daughters commissioned a number of sets of sculptures made of painted wood after Balla's original designs. The Smithsonian has, or had when I was there, some of them on display in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. They seem to us anyway as an appealing and compelling form of botanical art.
Giacomo Balla, Self-Portrait, 1957 (curiator.com)
There are few self-portraits of Balla from his early Futurist days; the one above is the last he ever painted, in 1957 (sixth image). Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.