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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Giacomo Balla: The Hand of the Violinist - 1912

London, Estorick Collection

In 1910, together with several other Italian artists, Giacomo Balla signed two Futurist manifestos. Futurism was the creation of the poet Filippo Marinetti who, the previous year, had published the first of a number of manifestos in the French newspaper le Figaro. The movement wanted to set Italy free from the suffocating burden of its artistic past and glorified all things modern — powerful cars were a particular favourite; as Marinetti famously quipped, ‘a roaring motorcar, which runs like a machine-gun, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace’.

Movement and speed were central to the Futurist creed and in this picture Balla, whilst not choosing a subject which was symbolic of modernity, is nevertheless exploring how he can depict the speed with which the musician’s hand and bow move across the strings of his instrument. It was painted during a visit to Germany in order to complete a commission for murals at the home of a former pupil, Grete Löwenstein. Her husband, Arthur, was an amateur violinist and he became the model for this composition.

Balla, like his fellow Futurists and other contemporary artists, (such as Marcel Duchamp whose famous Nude Descending a Staircase was painted in the same year as this picture) was fascinated by recent photographic experiments which were trying, in one way or another, to isolate the constituent elements of human and animal movement. Étienne-Jules Marey was one such photographer who produced sequential photographs which strove to freeze each instance of movement. Balla would have seen his work at the Exposition Universelle when he visited Paris in 1900. He also knew of the photography of Eadweard Muybridge and his countryman Anton Giulio Bragaglia. Balla has used these influences and fused them with the divisionist techniques of the French Neo-Impressionists (who he had seen during his Paris visit) and their Italian followers.

The initial image of the violin is quite distinct at the top of the sequence, becoming less so until the outline of the neck is almost lost. The hand and finger movements form a marvellous composite image which again blurs to semi abstraction, each instance represented with lines of yellow paint. The cuff of the violinist morphs into a continuous outline as it follows the enclosed wrist in its passionate excursions. Here is a perfect example of the assertion, contained within the Technical Manifesto of 1910, that ‘movement and light destroy the substance of objects’.

Contemporary Works

1912 Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, Philadelphia Museum of Art

1912 Pablo Picasso: Ma Jolie, New York, Museum of Modern Art

1912 Lovis Corinth: Self Portrait in White Smock, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

1913 Pierre Bonnard: Dining Room in the Country, Minneapolis, Institute of Art


Further Paintings of Interest

The Circus

Georges Seurat

Palais des Papes, Avignon

Paul Signac

The Figure 5 in Gold

Charles Demuth