“Atmospheric Dynamism”, c.1923-25

The Estorick Collection in Canonbury Square, N1, is a little jewel box, a far cry from the national museums whose expensive acquisitions and big staff mean they have to put on blockbusters all the time. Anything likely to be unpopular with the public at £15 a head won’t show, even if it’s artistically and historically important.

The Estorick is devoted to 20th century Italian art with special emphasis on Futurism. Consequently, you will see small but well curated exhibitions of Futurist art that will make you change your ideas. Such was “Piety and Pragmatism” in 2007, about the surprising sacred art produced by Futurists in the 1930s, following Mussolini’s Treaty with Rome. Now the Estorick has, until the weekend, a show about Giacomo Balla, one of the founders of Futurism and the only founder except Marinetti who stayed with it after the First World War. From the painter’s signature, FUTURBALLA, you guess that it became a part of his identity.


Although other art movements had political ambitions, Futurism was, outside Russia, the most closely associated with politics. The Futurists were devoted to Mussolini and Marinetti kept trying to ingratiate himself with the regime, even declaring, following the Lateran Treaty, that Jesus was a Futurist. Mussolini wasn’t interested, even though Marinetti’s Futurist Party was a precursor of Fascism, and despite the fact (or so it is said) that Mussolini learned his style of oratory from Marinetti’s declamatory poetry. (You can judge for yourself by comparing Marinetti reading “The Battle of Adrianople with a speech by il Duce.)  Anyhow, Futurism was more than easel painting. It found expression in literature, music, applied arts, interior design, theatre, clothing and food, where, in a surprisingly un-Italian move, Marinetti conducted a war on pasta. Its ambitions were set out in Depero and Balla’s “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe” (1915), albeit in abstract terms:

“We will give skeleton and flesh to the invisible, the impalpable, the imponderable and the imperceptible. We will find abstract equivalents for every form and element in the universe, and then we will combine them according to the caprice of our inspiration, creating plastic complexes which we will set in motion.”

“Failure”, 1902


In her introduction to the Estorick catalogue, Roberta Cremoncini says that the exhibition – the first in Britain to be devoted to Balla – reveals him to be “a true pioneer whose work not only comprised a number of Futurism’s most iconic images, but also included some of the earliest experiments in abstraction and proved hugely influential in terms of Modernism’s ability to transform all aspects of everyday life.”

“Chatting”, 1934

Balla was largely self-taught. His early works, in Divisionist style, demonstrated his radicalism. His painting “Failure” (1902) shows a detail of closed doors covered in graffiti. The angular placing and close cropping of the subject was typical. The influence of Bergson’s philosophy on Futurism is well-known, but Balla’s Futurist paintings were also underpinned by his interest in Theosophy and his attendance at séances. Conceiving of art as a total enterprise (in the case of Futurism we may say a Totalitarian enterprise) Balla turned to designing clothes and furniture. Although their patterns are abstract and formal, they are closer to the output of the Omega Workshops and the Wiener Werkstätte than to the modern industry that the Futurists affected to admire.


After twenty years of producing work in a consistent style, Balla realised that working in the same way for so long was a bit passéiste, and he made a sudden change to representational paintings derived from images in commercial advertising, popular magazines and newspapers. Fabio Benzi in his catalogue essay points out that he anticipated Pop Art by quarter of a century.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
39a Canonbury Square
London N1 2AN

Telephone: +44 20 7704 9522
Fax: +44 20 7704 9531

Opening Times
Wednesday to Saturday
11.00 – 18.00
Sunday 12.00 – 17.00
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.