Pessimism and Optimism: the futurist clash of two forces in Giacomo Balla's masterpiece

In 1923 Giacomo Balla (Turin, 1871 - Rome, 1958) painted the work that he considered one of his greatest masterpieces, Pessimism and Optimism. Here, the artist succeeded in summarizing his research by shaping the clash between two forces that govern the universe.

Contrary to what one might at first think, there is no elaborate philosophical framework underlying Pessimism and Optimism, the masterpiece to which Giacomo Balla devoted at least five years of research. There is, however, a firm intention: to give visible form to the invisible, to bring out, through lines and colors, the forces that govern the world. “We will give skeleton and flesh to the invisible, to the impalpable, to the imponderable, to the imperceptible,” he wrote together with Fortunato Depero in the manifesto Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo. “We will find abstract equivalents of all the forms and elements of the universe, then combine them together, according to the whims of our inspiration, to form plastic complexes that we will set in motion.” And the intellectual foundation of this purpose has more to do with esotericism than with philosophy: Balla’s biography written by his daughter Elica does not omit the painter’s participation in the meetings of the theosophical group chaired by General Carlo Ballatore, where they also held sĂ©ances. Balla was interested in the phenomena of the psyche, his daughter informs us: and probably on these occasions he became acquainted with the book Thought Forms by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, leading exponents of the British theosophical movement.

In the 1901 volume, Besant and Leadbeater start from an observation: thoughts are real things, but few people have a clear idea of what thoughts are, apparently untranslatable into concrete forms because thoughts do not manifest themselves in the world with a tangible appearance. For the two theosophists, however, there is the possibility of giving an image to thoughts, because every thought “sets in motion a series of correlative vibrations in the matter of the mental body, accompanied by a marvelous play of colors, like the gush of a sunlit fountain, but brought to the nth degree of delicacy and vividness of color.” These are the “thought-forms” with which the world is filled, continuously generated by human beings, and each thought corresponds not only to a form but also to a color. For example, red is the color of animalistic passion and sensual desire, light and dark brown belong to avarice and selfishness, respectively, pale gray is the color of fear, pink and crimson are the tones of affection, and blue in all its nuances indicates religious, devout feeling. And as might be expected, to combined or nuanced feelings correspond different gradations or mixtures of color.

Giacomo Balla, Pessimismo e Ottimismo (1923; olio su tela, 115 x 176 cm; Roma, Galleria Nazionale dÂ?Arte Moderna e Contemporanea)
Giacomo Balla, Pessimism and Optimism (1923; oil on canvas, 115 x 176 cm; Rome, Galleria Nazionale dArte Moderna e Contemporanea, gift Elica and Luce Balla 1984)

“Forme-thinking” is also the term Balla uses to refer to his innovative compositions. But there is more to Pessimism and Optimism that hints at theosophical thought. The underlying spiritual idea, for example. The desire to “enter the great domain of the plastic state of mind with equivalent new abstract forms,” to quote a note pinned down by the artist in 1914. And to a certain extent also this vision of the world conceived as a battleground between forces fighting against each other: a vision that the Turin painter had already been trying to translate into painting for some years through his experiments. The gestation of Pessimism and Optimism lasted five years: the idea dates back to 1918, when the artist had exhibited at the Casa d’Arte Bragaglia a painting entitled Pessimistic and Optimistic Forces, of which we have no further news. Until arriving, through different passages and different developments (recall, for example, another seminal painting such as Science versus Obscurantism), at the 1923 painting, now preserved at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, but then variously replicated, even in graphic form.

“Often Balla,” Maurizio Fagiolo Dell’Arco has written, “represented two opposing forces, even in a didactic function (another aspect of his painting not to be overlooked). The positive and the negative, the yes and the no, the black and the color take definitive form in what Balla considered one of the points of arrival of Futurism.” Here it is, then, the point of arrival of years of research, here is how the artist had succeeded in giving accomplished form to the invisible eight years after outlining his intent in the manifesto he signed together with Depero. The forces of pessimism are black, gloomy, pointed, sharp, sharp, sharp: they almost seem to model the outline of a knight who is launching an attack at speed. Those of optimism, on the other hand, are clear, reassuring, soft, devoted to blue and thus the color of the mystical and spiritual; they are sinuous, serene, curved and open, and seem to be holding up well to the assault, because they are enveloping, with razor-sharp razor-shades of clear light, the “pessimistic forces.” Light and movement: the two hinges around which Giacomo Balla’s art revolves.

Although in the end it is probably not even the struggle itself that really matters: the outcome, after all, according to Balla is a foregone conclusion, as if it were already written. The black of passatism cannot long resist the blue of the new, the horizon of futurism. “After the war,” Marinetti had to write in 1930, "there finally appears, miraculous as it was expected, the masterpiece: Optimism and Pessimism. All Italians who have not yet penetrated the achievements and infinite possibilities of painting can usefully observe that funereal dentate and membranous Passatist Pessimism will certainly be overcome by the elastic transparent crystalline Futurist Optimism."

The struggle thrills us, excites us, holds us astonished before the painting, absorbs us between that clash of lines. Pessimism and Optimism is a painting itself endowed with a magnetic force that captures those who admire it. The painting wants to give form to the forces of the universe, and it in turn produces them. But the outcome is almost already established: and after the struggle, when the cosmos regains an equilibrium, when the fury of the elements that move our actions subsides, leaving the field to art, here appears the innovator Balla. Pessimism and Optimism is the point of arrival of the futurist Balla’s research because this clash of forces is the evolution of his iridescent interpenetrations, it is movement in space, it is synthesis of trajectories that define the displacement of a body, according to those lines of speed that according to Balla were the basis of his thought-forms. The artist himself considered Pessimism and Optimism his masterpiece: "Good legs it takes to support your idea, for example Pessimism and Optimism is all about the balance of standing, it is all a perfect balance,“ he had to write in the same year he painted the picture. But it is also his faith in futurism that gives his work a soul. It is a faith, his daughter Elica wrote, ”in that futurism which went out into the world to bring a new light, and at this moment that the others are disintegrating he creates the futurist masterpiece Pessimism and Optimism the result of observations and considerations of social order, studies of movement and plasticity in tumultuous times of strife and contrasts. Pessimism and Optimism: contrast, the struggle of two opposing and both necessary forces."

Balla succeeds not only in entering that “great domain” and elevating his painting to a universal plane, but also succeeds in destroying the past and building the future, in the name of Futurist optimism. It could not have been otherwise for the artist whom his friend Depero recalled as “cheerful, playful, optimistic to the extreme.”

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