Abstract Speed

Giacomo Balla, Italian, 1871 - 1958


Oil on cream wove paper, mounted on wood

Sheet: 5 x 7 inches (12.7 x 17.8 cm)

@ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of The Judith Rothschild Foundation, 2007

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Balla belonged to the Furturist movement in Italy during the second decade of the twentieth century. The Futurists advocated reform of all aspects of human endeavor--art and architecture, furniture, clothing, and design, even customs and language--through technology and a commitment to the potential achievements of the new machine age. This drawing shows Balla's obsession with dynamism and velocity, which he expressed through abstract forms.

Additional information:
  • PublicationGifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    A decade older than his pupils Umberto Boccioni and Gini Severini, Giacomo Balla was invited to join them in signing the Manifesto of Futurist Painting in 1910. Soon thereafter he began applying separate strokes of color—a technique he had used in earlier work—to analytical studies of dynamic movement, beginning with a series on the flight of swifts, then another on speeding cars. Eventually he progressed to abstract renderings of speed and became the first Italian Futurist painter to practice pure abstraction.

    Whether created in oil, charcoal, or graphite, Balla’s studies of movement tend to charge from right to left, intentionally clashing head-on with the way a (Western) viewer customarily reads images, from left to right. In Abstract Speed, the format of the tiny picture is divided vertically by an ever-widening series of arcs, which are pierced by a horizontal force moving swiftly against them. Dark, roiling waves and opposing spirals disturb the cadence of the arcs’ forms, while light, diagonal touches of white enliven them throughout. The borders of the composition scarcely contain the energy within, as a sequence of short, staccato black points emerges from the top to suggest that the motion continues somewhere beyond its edge.

    The collector Nannette Rothschild, who purchased Abstract Speed in Milan in 1954, captured the essence of this powerful composition in her memoirs, observing that, despite its postcard size, the work contains the power of a much larger Futurist painting because of the intense concentration of its composition.

    The first example of Balla’s work to enter the collection, Abstract Speed, is a superb Futurist image that expands the Museum’s distinguished early modern holdings. Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 101.

  • PublicationItalian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    The drawing is from Balla’s most creative period, when he was engaged in translating the phenomena of velocity and light into images. His 1910 drawing Futurist Automobile set in motion a parade of images, and apparently he, like Marinetti, considered a speeding automobile to be “more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.” He began to draw and paint rotating wheels, some titled Wheels in Motion, and as the works became more abstract so did their titles, such as Undulating Wheels and Lines of Movement. In 1912 he painted his celebrated Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, in which the repetition of elements of a moving object (in this case the dog’s legs and tail) was meant to be the visual equivalent of the movement itself. This bold experiment with a static image soon gave way to cinema, as photographic images were less labor-intensive to make and, shown sequentially, literally became “moving pictures.” In 1913 Balla put all his previous paintings up for auction and made his new imagery public: four paintings of speeding cars were shown in the Lacerba exhibition in Florence in November 1913 and in the London Futurist exhibition of 1914. He began to pursue the idea of “force lines,” or “speed lines,” producing works he titled Dynamic Expansion or, as here, Abstract Speed. In the present drawing he has woven powerful diagonal shafts of light through the wheels, and the repetitive verticals serve, by contrast, as a reminder of the forces of stasis that the forward movement must overcome. The opposition of these two physical forces provides the extraordinary dynamism of the drawing. A drawing of similar composition, signed and inscribed by the artist Velocità astratta (or “abstract speed”), bears on its verso a later drawing by him, hyperrealistic in style, that is thought to represent the famous “march on Rome” that the Fascists organized in October 1922, with a stern Mussolini shown at the center of the front row flanked by his handpicked quadrumviri. In fact, Mussolini had sat out the march in Milan, and the drawing may portray instead his dramatic recall to Rome immediately after ward to become prime minister. In any event, it attests to Balla’s political sympathies as well as his determination, stated in 1937, to return to his early style. He turned to landscape painting and portraits, including a late series of self-portraits that are intensely introspective. Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 73.

    Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Encounters with Modern Art: The Reminiscences of Nannette F. Rothschild. Exhibition catalogue edited by George H. Marcus. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1996, pp. 67, 91, 118, pl. 3;
    Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Exhibition organized by Alice Beamesderfer. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002, p. 101, repro.