I have written about the Estorick before. A couple of weeks ago there was a power cut at my head office. All the servers and phones went down and I was left twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do. This is an occasion where living in London pays real dividends because I sauntered down the road and spent a happy hour going around this exhibition at the Estorick.
Giaocomo Balla was an Italian artist who lived from 1871 to 1958. He started life as a figurative painter in sort of the impressionist tradition but transitioned to being a modernist and one of the founders of the Futurist movement. This exhibition, covering 3 rooms of the Estorick charts his life and shows the change.
In the first room then you have his figurative work. It’s good stuff and he was obviously an established and successful artist before the foray into modernism. There is a portrait of a woman sewing (below) with the cloth she is producing rendered in an iridescent impressionist fashion, contrasting nicely with the slightly dull red of her clothes.
There is then a portrait of a woman at the Villa Borghese (where Balla lived, below left)). The left hand of the painting in darkness from which the figure barely emerges into the light of the field on the right. I like the slightly threatening trees and the loose quick lines of greens, purples and pinks to make up the field.
Making quite an impact though is this furious frowning portrait of Leo Tolstoy (below right) which has a sort of ghostly or angelic quality to it with the black and white figure against the purpley grey background. The arc of the top of the canvas somehow adds to the whole thing too. He has rendered Tolstoy as a sort of Zeus like figure and the marks behind him are almost lightning.
One of the interesting things (to me anyway) is the different materials Balla uses. He paints allot on cardboard. Do this now and you won’t get quite the same effect as modern cardboard is different in texture and quality. An example of this, and a good one is Portrait of Signora Cassarini (below). Interestingly this is done in pastel with the shape of the picture and the frame all adding to piece.
Then suddenly, bam, you are into futurism and the signature changes to Futur Balla, like some kind of super hero donning his costume. The change of style and approach is sudden and there are these brightly coloured geometric shapes. A common medium used is Tempura, which I usually associate with pre-renaissance art. It gives a sort of flat consistent approach, not unlike Gouache but softer and more pastelly (in colour not texture). The piece below right by the way is a painted studio door.
He did not abandon the figurative work though and two of my favourite pieces, Chatting and flowers are done after the change. They are very good, signed with Balla (as though returning to normal life). I like the pose and easy body language in Chatting (bellow), particularly actually of the figure on the left. I also like that it is obviously done in Balla’s studio and you can see other paintings, including obviously Futurist ones lurking in the background.
The Flower painting on the other hand (below) is all strong big brush strokes with the central flowers almost blending in, or coming out of the mesmeric background. It is one of those paintings you have to observe from a bit of a distance as it ceases to be coherent when you get close up. Possibly slightly heretically I prefer his figurative stuff. The Futurist stuff is good particularly the less angular ones, but he is a very god figurative painter and I find these more appealing. I find the Futurist paintings a little austere and impersonal.
Like many artists in similar genres, such as Delauney, he designed furniture and clothing. So you have this studio door (picture above) and shop display (below) stand all done in the style. I like the door. It would make me happy going through such a door I think. Imagine what Narnia would be like if the wardrobe was designed like that.
Various designs for suits are displayed and was attracted to (and think that I would attract in) this black and green number (below left). Some finished garments were on display such as this waistcoat (below right). I am not sure about this waistcoat, but then I am suspicious of waistcoats generally. They are all too frequently associated with top hats. Never trust a man in a top hat.
Various designs for scarves are produced, many in quite expansive format. One of my favourite designs in this part of the show is Tarscilbalbu (below), a chest and clothes stand looking very much like an impish Tiki figure of some kind.
The final room, upstairs, contain later work, but also smaller more restrained things, such as extracts from note books or sketches. There were also these very simple line drawings, which almost look disposable but somehow appealed to me (bellow middle). They are a good example of what you can achieve with simplicity. I like the sketches quite a lot. They seem more intimate and accessible then some of the other works, such as this curvy faded number which is a dancer (below right).
That then is the paid exhibition. Don’t leave straight away thought, particularly if you like Balla, have a look round the permanent exhibition. They have changed it slightly since last time I wrote about it. One of the additions is this superb piece by Balla called Violinists hands (below). It looks much better in the original. Part of the effect is the frame which is reminiscent of an opera goer’s suit and then you have these hands, with this excellent stuttering effect of movement. Very nice.
As you leave there is a pleasant little courtyard before you exit onto the street. In that courtyard I came across these odd little rocky sculptures (below). I have no idea what they are, or who they are by, but I like them.
If you have made it this far to the post congratulations. I am organising a solo show of my work for 19th August in Stoke Newington. More details soon.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.