Lot 9
  • 9

Giacomo Balla

12,000,000 - 18,000,000 USD
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  • Giacomo Balla
  • Automobile in corsa
  • Signed Futur Balla (lower left); signed Futur Balla and titled on the reverse
  • Oil and ink on paper laid down on board
  • 29 by 41 in.
  • 74 by 104 cm


Hon. Pietro Campilli, Rome & Paris (acquired from the artist and until at least 1961)

Galerie Tarica, Paris (acquired in the 1970s)

Acquired from the above by the present owners


Naples, Prima espozione di pittura futirista. Boccioni-Carrà-Russolo-Balla-Soffici, 1914

Turin, Galleria Civica Arte Moderna, Giacomo Balla, 1963, no. 71

Turin, Galleria Martano, Balla, 1974, no. 12bis, illustrated in the catalogue

Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Futurismo e futurismi, 1986, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1913)

Barcelona, Museo Picasso, Futurismo, 1909-1916, 1996, no. 13, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Turin, Palazzo Bricherasio, Luci del Mediterraneo, 1997, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Genova, Palazzo Ducale & Milan, Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, Futurismi, I grandi temi, 1997-98, no. 1/11, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Lausanne, Fondation de l’Hermitage, Futurisme, L’Italie face à la modernité, 1998, illustrated in color in the catalogue (as dating from 1913-14)

Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Marcel Proust, 1999-2000, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Hannover, Sprengel Museum, Der LARM der Strasse, 2001, no. 22, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Basel, Musée Tinguely, 2001

Deutsches Historisches Museum, Die Zweite Schöpfung, 2002, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Vienna, Futurismus, Radikale Avantgarde, 2003-04, no. 2, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Brussels, Musée d'Ixelles, Futurismo, 2003-04, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Madrid, El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza,  1914! The Avant-Garde and the Great War, 2008

Milan, Palazzo Reale, Balla la modernità futurista, 2008, no. II. 28, illustrated in color in the catalogue (titled Dinamismo + dispersion)

Lugano, Museo Cantonale d'Arte, 2009


Joshua C. Taylor, Futurism, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, illustrated p. 64 (as dating from 1913)

Maria Drudi Gambillo & Teresa Fiori, Archivi del futurismo, vol. II, Rome, 1962, no. 81, illustrated p. 85

M. Calvesi, "Il futurismo," L'Arte Moderna, Vol. 5, Milan, 1967, no. 40, illustrated p. 160

Giovanni Lista, Balla, Modena, 1982, no. 316, illustrated p. 198 (as dating from 1913)

Ada Masoero, "Si ritorna al "Futurismus," Il Sole, 24 Ore, Milan, May 18, 2003, illustrated p. 40

I Futuristi, Florence & Milan, 2004, no. 3, illustrated p. 53 (as dating from 1913)

Christine Poggi, Inventing Futurism, The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism, Princeton & Oxford, 2009, fig. 1.13, illustrated p. 29


This work is in excellent condition. The board is stable and all media is intact. One can see that the edges are slightly uneven, where the artist's gesso on the paper was a little uneven. The various different applications of charcoal, a black ink-like color and a more heavy grey color are all in very good condition. The small very white fleck of paint in the lower center is original. There are more specks like this in the lower right. There is a pinhole in the lower right and another on the edge in the upper right; there are probably others as well, that are original to the support.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, to be held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from February 21- September 1, 2014.

Giacomo Balla’s remarkable images of racing automobiles emerged in 1913 in the wake of the artist’s “rebirth” as a Futurist.  Although he had signed the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” in April 1910, his work did not respond to the manifesto’s demand for paintings that focused on modern dynamism, the triumphs of technology, or sensations of speed until late in 1911.  Balla’s Street Lamp, a painting that figures the centrifugal radiance of an electric arc lamp as it overpowers the softer light of the moon, did not meet the expectations of fellow Futurists Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carrà.  Listed in the catalogue for the famous exhibition of Futurist paintings shown at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris in February of 1912, the Street Lamp was not exhibited.  The works that followed opened a new line of experimentation, initially developed in the artist’s sketchbooks.  By the spring of 1912, Balla had launched his earliest series of motion studies: The Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, a cropped “close-up” of a dog’s rotating legs, its spinning leash, and the multiplied steps of a woman; a set of drawings of his young daughter Luce running on the balcony of the artist’s apartment in Rome that culminated in the luminous Girl Running on a Balcony; a series devoted to the flight of swifts seen from the same balcony; and in the fall, Rhythms of the Violinist, a v-shaped painting that evokes the rapid displacements of a violinist’s left hand, his bow, and the expansive force of sound penetrating the environment.  These innovative works filtered direct observation through the model provided by E.-J. Marey’s chronophotography, which captured the trajectory of a movement on a single photographic plate in a sequence of overlapping images.  Balla was also a close friend of Anton Giulio Bragaglia, whose Futurist “photodynamisms” (photographs of moving objects made through long exposure) provided an important prototype in the quest to find a means of rendering movement that conjoined direct observation with intuitive and lyrical responses to a given subject.  In each of his motion pictures, Balla drew upon the repetitive rhythms and the visible or implied lines of force revealed by Marey’s chronophotography, as well as on the blurred fusion of object and surrounding space to be seen in the Bragaglia’s photodynamisms.  But he also supplemented these photographic models with all the signs of pictorial bravura: brilliant, overlapping patches and strokes of color, textured and striated surfaces, the interweaving of figure and ground, and, in the case of Rhythms of a Violinist, a shaped canvas that integrates surface, frame, motif, and environmental surround.   

         Having created a new and highly original body of work and refashioned himself as a Futurist, Balla staged the death of his previous, passatista self with an overtly theatrical gesture.  He mounted an exhibition and sale of his now outmoded pre-Futurist paintings in Peppino Giosi’s antiquarian gallery; a banner stretched across the street before the gallery declared in black letters between two enormous black crosses: “Balla is Dead. Here are Sold the Works of the Late Balla.”[i]  The works of art that followed continued to explore various approaches to the representation of motion, and more explicitly to fulfill the Futurist goal of placing the spectator in the center of the work of art.

            Balla’s earliest studies of motorcars, executed on gridded notebook paper, depict the Fiat Type 3 (1910-1912) at rest, without any indication of spatial context.[ii] These drawings, which most likely date from spring 1913, focus on the specific design of the vehicle, including the open driver’s compartment with its diagonal steering column and wheel, hanging lamps and a retractable window shade, windows, flat roof, side door, wheels, flared bumpers, and running footboard.  In one drawing, Balla designated the location of the light on the footboard with the word “luce” (and made a separate sketch of its circular structure at the top of the sheet), marked the hood ornament with the word “ottone” (brass), and offered a schematic profile of a driver wearing a cap.  Other sketches described both this Fiat and the smaller, convertible Fiat Type 1.  On a drawing of the latter in notebook no. 5, the artist wrote: “Everything abstracts itself with equivalents that go from their point of departure to infinity” as well as the word “Futurista” at the top in bold letters.[iii]  According to Balla’s daughters, he drew these vehicles from a corner on the Via Veneto in front of the Palazzo Regina Margherita in Rome (now the site of the American Embassy).[iv]  Beginning with close observation of the automobiles, he then both distilled and elaborated his sketches into dynamic patterns of abstract, or nearly abstract, pictorial “equivalents. ”  He thereby sought to intensify the sensory effects of what could be seen as well as what could be heard, felt, or imagined.

           Racing Automobile is one of the series of paintings and large-scale works on paper that Balla executed in 1913 and 1914 that were clearly inspired by Marey’s chronophotographs.  Poised between figuration and abstraction, the painting retains the repeated image of the Fiat Type 3, with a driver seated before its steering column and wheel as it speeds from right to left across the horizon, even as the rotating wheels and angular blasts of air expand in intersecting waves that eventually fly free of any descriptive purpose.  Balla calls attention to his photographic prototype through a subtle palette of grays, blacks, and whites, as well as through the cropping of the image, which seems to explode beyond its rectangular limits.  Yet the multiplied orthogonals exceed what could be captured in a photograph, as they converge towards (or expand outward from) two different vanishing points: one centered in the foremost vehicle at the left, the other at the left margin.  Indeed, rather than recede with perspectival logic and discretion into the distance, rotating wheels proliferate as whirling vortices that grow larger as they approach the foreground; the flat roof of the automobile generates a set of nested boxes that advances toward the viewer; and the larger, shaded diagonals of mountain-like volumes descend from the top of the picture to its very bottom edge, where they imply movement beyond the painting’s border.  Balla explained to Giorgio Nicodemi that he intended the lines propelled from the advancing  automobile at the left “to represent the expansion and noise of the motor,” whereas the large diagonally projecting angles visualize the atmosphere.[v]  They thus attest to Balla’s interest in rendering what he elsewhere called spessori d’atmosfera (atmospheric densities), or what F. T. Marinetti, in his account of the 1907 Brescia automobile races, described as the dynamic force of “the blast of air of a departure.”[vi]  The whirling circles and intersecting lines of force of a now-lost 1913 oil painting titled Density of Atmosphere take this logic further, to create an image of the dynamism of matter, as do Balla’s related images of vortices and abstract lines of speed.  A series of 1913-14 on the theme of “abstract velocity” dispenses with the automobile, so as to render speed itself in the form of freely cavorting lines of flight and blue arcs that evoke the haptic presence of the sky/atmosphere.  A triptych of 1913 comprising Velocity + Landscape (Private Collection), Abstract Velocity + Noise (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice), and Abstract Velocity, The Automobile Has Passed (Tate Gallery), figures the temporal phases of a car’s speeding vector through a tranquil landscape.  These works, which developed from the motion studies, and from Balla’s racing automobiles in particular, gave rise to his subsequent abstractions as well as paintings and constructed sculptures that sought to render sensations of noise or the volatility and flux of the cosmos in the vocabulary of abstract equivalents.  (See, for example, Noise Forms of c. 1914, a work whose multiplied points of convergence and dispersal derive in large measure from the pictures of speeding automobiles and whirling vortices.)

The technical procedures Balla used in executing Racing Automobile seem designed to enhance the effect of surging forces released from an already energized, atmospheric field.  He prepared the paper support by applying a layer of gesso and color in distinct areas, and then covered it with a matrix of pale gray pigment, laid on in visible, mostly vertical strokes.  The bold diagonals and swirling shapes of his composition stand out against this underlying, rhythmically ordered mesh, with traces of blue emerging though the gray at the lower right, and reddish pink appearing throughout the left side, especially near the edge.  Balla further interfused  figure and ground by adding strokes of gray over black, by intensifying zones of opaque black with lines (and sometimes irregular splotches) of a deeper shiny black paint or ink, and then blurring their force with further streaks of white or gray.  The darker tones dominate the background, especially along the horizon line, while the lighter ones seem virtually to leap off the paper as they fly toward the foreground.  The painting is thus profoundly anti-photographic despite Balla’s evident fascination with scientific photography; its surface emerges as a densely worked, textured ground, whose depth and gestural markings refer to the dynamic processes of painting as much as to the thrilling sensations afforded by a speeding motorcar.  Balla signed the painting in the lower left corner, a zone he built up with a layer of gesso, and then over-painted with a field of white paint strokes; here he inscribed the name "Futur Balla," claiming this work as the product of his newly created identity, born from the ashes of "Fu Balla."

Sotheby's would like to thank Christine Poggi, Professor of Modern and Contemporary art at the University of Pennsylvania, for writing the entry for the present work.

[i]For an account of this event, see Elica Balla, Con Balla, vol. 1 (Milan: Multhipla, 1984), 300-303.

[ii]For further discussion of these studies, and of Racing Automobile, see: Christine Poggi, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 27-29.

[iii]For a reproduction of this notebook page, see: Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, Balla: The Futurist (New York: Rizzoli, 1998), 82. 

[iv]Giovanni Lista, Balla, catalogue raisonné (Modena: Galleria Fonte d’Abisso, 1982), 49.

[v]On the lines emanating from the foremost Fiat, see: Giorgio Nicodemi, Il dono di Carlo Grassi al Comune di Milano (Milan: Comune di Milano, 1962), 124; cited in Giorgio De Marchis, Balla (Rome: De Luca, 1972), 68; for an interpretation of the volumetric diagonals in related paintings, based on interviews with Luce and Elica Balla and their memories of discussions with Balla, see: Virginia Dortch Dorazio, Giacomo Balla: An Album of His Life and Work (New York: Wittenborn, [1969]), n.p. cat. no. 107.

[vi]F. T. Marinetti, “La mort tient le volant…,” in La ville charnelle (Paris: E. Sansot, 1908), 226.