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An Italian Futurist’s Legacy Defies the Course of Time

By Rebecca Anne Proctor  |  Rome, 13 October 2021

An Italian Futurist’s Legacy Defies the Course of Time

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Living Room. © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

As Giacomo Balla's home opens to the public in Rome for the first time on the 150th anniversary of his birth, eight contemporary artists celebrate his artistry with specially commissioned work on view at Rome's MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back (17 June–21 November 2021).

Rome's upscale art nouveau district of Prati offers an interesting visual contrast to the sensuous and Baroque architecture of the city's Centro Storico. Prati was built during the early 20th century as part of Rome's expansion, and the area is a testament to Rome's multifaceted character, distinct from its ancient and Renaissance personas. As is an unassuming mid-20th century apartment in the district on Via Oslavia that once belonged to the Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla, who lived and worked there from 1929 until his death in 1958.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. FuturBalla door. © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. FuturBalla door. © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

A painter, art teacher, and poet, Balla was a key proponent of Italian Futurism, an artistic and social movement originating in the early 20th century that sought to liberate Italy from the weight of its ancient past by embracing modernity and celebrating technology, invention, speed, and disruption.

Balla, a founding member of Futurism, had little formal art training but was fascinated with reproducing in painting the qualities of light and its effects, as seen in his canvas The Street Lamp (c. 1909–1911): an abstract rendering of a Roman streetlamp casting an electrifying glow in a multitude of resonating colours.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Elica's room (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Elica's room (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio

Unlike other Futurists who were concerned with depicting modern machines and violence, Balla was a lyrical painter whose free, emotive, and often geometric compositions express Futurism's tenets of energy and vitality.

Of course, the movement was not without controversy in its support of Fascism, its glorification of war, and inherent misogyny. In his Futurist Manifesto of 1909, founding member Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) wrote, 'We will glorify war—the world's only hygiene.'

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. The red studio (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. The red studio (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

Balla, however, less outspoken than other members, focused his work on 'reconstruct[ing] the universe by cheering it up', as he wrote in the 1915 manifesto Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe with fellow artist Fortunato Depero.

The breadth of Balla's practice is on full display in his U-shaped three-bedroom flat, which has barely been touched since the 1990s, when both Balla's daughters, Elica and Luce, passed away, both of whom lived there for their entire lives.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Luce's room (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Luce's room (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

The bright space is filled with Balla's colorful futuristic paintings, furniture, sculpture, fashion attire, and accessories.

In a long hallway, a ceiling is painted with interconnecting anamorphic forms in pastel hues of blues, greens, and yellows, flanked by vibrantly coloured paintings with dynamic geometric shapes mounted on the upper portion of each wall.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Hallway. © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Hallway. © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

Nearby is a coatrack on which hangs a futuristic triangular bag with a yellow sliver of a moon on its front, a pair of purple futuristic pants and matching jacket with thunderbolt zig-zagging white and yellow forms, and a more subtle evergreen hat.

Each room has its own futuristic flair. Even the bathroom and the kitchen have defining traits—such as Balla-designed cutlery, chairs, vases, and tablecloths, which capture the energy of the modern 20th-century world.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Kitchen. © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Kitchen. © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

But the spirit of the pioneering Futurist also resonates in another component of the momentous opening of Balla's home. At Rome's MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Domitilla Dardi have curated Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back.

Original drawings, carpets, and paintings by Balla are interspersed amid eight newly commissioned pieces by Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine, Carlo Benvenuto, Alex Cecchetti, designer Patricia Urquiola, Jim Lambie, Emiliano Maggi, Leonardo Sonnoli, and Space Popular, a design and architecture studio founded by Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Elica's room (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Elica's room (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

Organised across one long open space on two levels of the museum, the show begins with a short film by Bêka and Lemoine: OSLAVIA – The Cave of the Past Future (2021). The filmmakers, who have long focused on architecture as 'a living place,' tour Balla's home and reveal its multifaceted identity as a salon, studio, and place for family.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Bathroom (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021.

Casa Balla, Via Oslavia, Rome. Bathroom (detail). © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2021. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo: M3Studio.

The work is followed by As the Moon is Seen Sometimes in Broad Daylight (2021), a multidisciplinary performative piece by Italian artist, poet, and choreographer Alex Cecchetti that brings together specially created garments and a majolica dancefloor onto which Cecchetti has painted the hypnotic forms of the trametes versicolor mushroom.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

Dancers or visitors can wear the skirts and dance around to a sound composition, created by Cecchetti and composer Brian Shank and based on the solar system, in a manner recalling the whirling dervishes of the Sufi tradition: an attempt, akin to Balla and Depero's futuristic call to re-envision every aspect of the world, which led to the Futurist concept of opera d'arte totale or total work of art.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

For an exhibition that is meant to centre Balla's legacy, however, it is only after these two pieces that the artist's works are displayed.

Unlike other Futurists who were concerned with depicting modern machines and violence, Balla was a lyrical painter whose free, emotive, and often geometric compositions express Futurism's tenets of energy and vitality.

Haphazardly grouped on a nearby wall are framed sketches and futuristic garments, including delicate ink and pencil studies for sweaters and vests and Balla's Dress for Luce, designed in 1928–1929, covered in blue, white, and black asymmetric forms.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

What follows is Maggi's eerie blue installation Notturni (2021)—an unsettling piece comprising Self-Portrait at Dawn (2021), a sculpture of Maggi's head with his eyes closed and a mouth slightly open to reveal fang-like teeth as if in agony or sadness, made in ceramic, wood, and brass placed upon a rectangular blue wooden support.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

Maggi's head is positioned in front of a fantastical monochrome blue paravent with large decorative abstract forms extending out from either side like wings.

The paravent, a nod to Balla's famous screens painted in vivid colourful forms, also has a long mirror that reflects deformed reflections of viewers and their surroundings, offering a moment of unease—sentiments evoking Futurism's more disruptive overtones as much as today's state of restless anxieties.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

Across the exhibition, precedence seems to have been given to the display of new contemporary commissions, many of which tower over Balla's more delicate works, unfortunately relegating Balla to the status of reference point rather than an artistic forebear.

A few steps away from Maggi's installation the contrast between his sad blue space and Balla's artistic world is heightened as visitors re-enter, albeit briefly, Balla's enchanting world.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

A few gleeful furniture pieces include Balla's Door of the Red Study (1928), a wooden door covered in oil- and enamel-painted anamorphic shapes in blues, greens, yellows, and reds.

Aligning either side of the nearby walls are framed works, many depicting animals, such as Parrots (1929), a canvas woven as a tapestry revealing several colourful birds that was inspired by photographic studies of animal locomotion. (Balla devoted much time to exploring how to capture the flight movements of birds.)

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

The exhibition culminates with The Communal Table (2021). Inspired by the asymmetries in Balla's furniture, a large zig-zagging table made of transparent polycarbonate bases by Spanish architect and designer Patricia Urquiola in collaboration with Cassina, pays homage to the late Futurist's synthesising of design, new technology, and art.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

As the designers state, this table is intended to serve as 'a place of meeting' between creatives. It is a peculiar concept given Italian Futurism's controversial association with the rise of Fascism in Italy: a disconnect that relates to the general lack of curatorial connections in this MAXXI exhibition, which leaves viewers lost between the aesthetics of the past and present.

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021).

Exhibition view: Casa Balla: From the house to the universe and back, MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (17 June–21 November 2021). Courtesy MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts. Photo: Giorgio Benni.

Despite such hiccups, in which Balla's work appears lost in a jungle of contemporary responses that at times meander towards rather than strike at the heart of Balla's theoretical vision, the exhibition, and in particular his home, is still worth viewing: a testament to the artist's belief that art can live in all things. —[O]

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