The Washington Post Sunday
This incredibly charming painting emerged from a disturbing ideology
If you were seduced or emotionally blackmailed into getting a pandemic mutt, I hope you’re enjoying the routine of the daily dog walk. You might be tickled, in any case, by “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,” which hangs at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The Italian Giacomo Balla painted it in 1912 on a visit to one of his students, the Contessa Nerazzini, at Montepulciano in Tuscany. This was two years after Balla (1871-1958) had signed a riotous manifesto written by his former student Umberto Boccioni.
Boccioni’s manifesto is one of the most entertaining ever written. Titled “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto,” it expressed a hope that science would deliver painting from the dead hand of stultifying convention. Almost as an afterthought, it called for a 10-year moratorium on nudes — not on moral grounds (“nothing is immoral in our eyes”), but because Boccioni thought artists’ “desire to expose the bodies of their mistresses” was “as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature.”
Balla’s adorable painting is a direct response to the manifesto — particularly to Boccioni’s insistence that art should stop trying to reproduce fixed moments in the “universal dynamism” of life and instead seek to capture “the dynamic sensation itself.”
“All things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing,” wrote Boccioni, who was a great painter and sculptor. “On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves; their form changes like rapid vibrations . . . . Thus, a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular.”
It’s generally a bad idea to illustrate manifestos. But Balla’s locomotive dachshund, with its flickering halo of dashes and leaping leash, presents a convincing case to the contrary.
The painting was clearly influenced by the chronophotography of Eadweard Muybridge, who used groups of cameras attached to trip wires to show sequential images of animals in motion, and by Etienne-Jules Marey, who used a similar technique but superimposed separate frames onto one, achieving effects much like Balla’s.
These photographic innovations were already a quarter-century old by the time Balla painted “Dynamism of a Dog.” But both the invention of cinema and the idea of simultaneity opened up by cubism (which Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso had invented only a few years earlier) made them feel freshly relevant. And not only to Balla: Marcel Duchamp painted “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” the same year as “Dynamism of a Dog.”
The futurist painting manifesto applied to visual art the salient points of another, even more entertaining manifesto by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944). Marinetti was an Italian sick of living amid the ruins of ancient Rome. He was a brilliant poet and savvy impresario, an apostle of the new. He was also bad news.
In “The Manifesto of Futurism,” which was first published in Paris in the newspaper Le Figaro in early 1909, Marinetti declared that literature should “exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.” Hoping to provoke a sensation, he called for the destruction of “museums, libraries, academies of every kind” and pledged to “fight moralism, feminism [and] every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” He celebrated war (“the world’s only hygiene”) and had a lifelong relationship with Benito Mussolini’s fascism.
Subsequent developments and events exposed futurism as redundant, ridiculous, repugnant. But Balla’s picture remains as arresting, charming and funny as ever. It reaffirms the one great thing at the heart of Italian futurism: a sense of spiritual urgency, a demand that we free ourselves to see everyday things — including dog walks — not just with a fresh eye, but also a kind of mad euphoria.