Only the velocity remains

`INDEED, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing.'' So declared the ``Technical Manifesto'' of ``Futurist Painting'' issued in Milan in 1910. It was the work of five Italian artists, one of them Giacomo Balla. Movement, speed, dynamism were the catchwords, the preoccupation, of this new movement. Not only did these artists observe that the world was in a state of agitated flux, but also they were fiercely determined to contribute to this rebellion against things static, against the past. They boasted a ``haughty contempt'' for ``the fanatical worship of all that is old and moth-eaten.''

As to painting itself, they proposed that ``the gesture which we would reproduce on canvas shall no longer be a fixed moment in universal dynamism. It shall simply be the dynamic sensation itself.''

It is hardly surprising that the automobile - modern, mechanistic, and reckless with power and motion - should have been one of the Futurists' favorite symbols. Balla in particular used the speeding car as his starting point for an important painting in 1913. He produced more than 100 preparatory works for it. As is shown in the Balla exhibition currently traveling in Britain, and the vastly comprehensive display of Futurism as an international phenomenon seen last year in Venice, Balla was the most objective and inventive of the group. His works of the period still seem remarkably compelling. His ``Study of Moving Wheels'' shown here (included in the British show, which concentrates on the experimental character of Balla's procedures as an artist), is among his earliest studies on the theme of car speed. It was at about the same time that he painted ``Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash'' and ``Girl Running on a Balcony,'' both of which explore within the limits of one painting something already exploited by experimental photographers: The running girl becomes a sequence of merging figures across the canvas, each at a different moment in her forward movement; the dog's legs, tail, and leash are similarly multiple in their representation.

But these, though finished paintings, are stages in Balla's work. So, too, is ``Study of Moving Wheels.'' His aim, as it was to emerge in 1913 when his speeding car studies reached their most intense, was to investigate the delineation of a car's motion to a point where the car disappears in the painting or drawing and only the velocity remains.

He began, certainly, with drawings of a car, its driver, and passenger. The next stage was a multiplication of images (like film frames) that show the car's body and wheels, like the running girl's feet, as a succession of images. In this he must surely have been conscious of the ``chronophotographs'' of moving figures made by 'Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1890s. He cannot have ignored precedent quite as much as the brave words of the Futurist manifestoes might suggest.

But Balla was moving toward something he believed photography could not achieve. The drawing shown here, concentrating exclusively on the car's wheels, shows one of his first attempts at finding in art terms an equivalent for the car's forward movement. Lines of force, springing apparently from the spokes of the car wheels, spin off into space like shadowy Catherine-wheel fireworks, effectively suggesting the forward sweeping impulsion of the vehicle and the revolutions of its wheels, their static form dissolving in the process. ``Everything,'' he was later to note, ``becomes abstract, the equivalents go from a starting point to infinity.''

Looking at this study, the viewer might well conclude that Balla would have been interested in the orbits, motions, and trajectories of the planets; and that is precisely where his experiments were to lead him. By 1914 he was painting ``Mercury Passing in Front of the Sun Seen Through a Telescope.'' In 1915 he declared: ``Futurism, predestined force of progress, ... creates the style of flowing abstract forms that are synthetic and inspired by the dynamic forces of the universe.'' It might seem a long haul from the observation of a dachshund's legs to planet Mercury, but for Balla the Futurist painter it was the progress of only two or three years fostered by a kind of ruthless optimism. After recent showings at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and the Riverside Studios, London, ``Balla'' will be seen at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Oct. 25 to Dec. 6.

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