The sublime and Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed – The Car Has Passed (1913)

Giacomo Balla (1871-1978) was an Italian artist and a key figure in the development of Futurism, an early 20th century art movement which centred around a rejection of the past and an embracement of what the Futurists saw as issues representative of the age in which they live, namely advances in technology, industry and science, and also the recognition of the importance of progress breaking free from the anchor of tradition. As Umberto Boccioni, another key figure in the foundation and development of the futurist movement, states in his ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’ (a manifesto of which Giacomo Balla was a signatory), ‘all subjects must be swept aside in order to express our whirling life of steel, of pride, of fever and of speed.’[1] It was necessary then for a new style of art to develop in which these ideas and issues could be adequately addressed. It is, however, the ultimate and inevitable failure to satisfyingly address these ideas that leads the work of artists such as Balla to enter the realm of the sublime.

We can see this attempt to create a mode of artistic expression that is pertinent to the struggle to come to terms with modernity in Balla’s work through his exploration of the concepts of light and of movement, the latter of which being the main focus of this work from 1913, Abstract Speed – The Car Has Passed. For Balla, his depiction of speed, or dynamism, represents the struggle for visual art to assert its validity in the wake of new photographic technology. As Maly and Dietfried Gerhardus suggests in Cubism and Futurism: The Evolution of the Self-Sufficient Picture, ‘Balla [was] trying to add something to the sense of movement conveyed by the analytical process of photography. He wanted to add a new suggestion of motion by using means proper to static painting.’[2] So therefore if photography can produce an image more realistic and accurate than even the finest artist can achieve, then painting must do what photography cannot: to divorce itself from reality and commit to abstraction. It is through this process of abstraction and the engagement of that which cannot be fully comprehended that Balla is enabled to present us with feelings of the sublime. This concept of dynamism would be most prominently presented in Balla’s work through his depiction of motor cars, which would, as Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco states in Balla: The Futurist, ‘become a symbol of the “victory” over the difficulties of pictorial representation.’[3]

Balla would utilise these depictions of cars to express his ideas about the nature of speed. As we can see in his notebook sketches, this process would begin with a picture of a single stationary car, that would then be distorted to a degree that both creates an illusion of motion and obscures the original focal object, and it is the result of this that we can see in this work; although, as the title suggests, the car has just passed through this scene, leaving us not with an image of a moving car, but an image of speed itself.

Although what this particular painting is depicting is seemingly inconceivable upon first viewing, with this creative process in mind we can begin to understand what we are looking at. We can conceive, for example, the blue of the sky, the green landscape in the background and a white road in the foreground. The titular car has just past through the scene from right to left, as movement in this direction is seemingly the most effective way of conveying speed. This technique is explained by dell’Arco, when he says that ‘Since it is a scientific observation that the spectator reads the picture from left to right (at least in the West), this makes the impact between the subject represented and the spectator’s eye more dynamic.’[4] All that remains as evidence of this vehicle in the painting itself is perhaps a hint of an exhaust plume and, most crucially, a distorted image of a natural landscape torn up by the interruption of a speeding car.

However, even with this illuminating information in mind, it is still insufficient in allowing us to fully comprehend what the picture is actually a representation of, for although we are aware of the subject of the painting, namely a car passing on a road, the construction of this is presented in a wholly abstract fashion, taking the focus away from the object and moving towards the potential effect the painting may have on the viewer. So the focus is on effect rather than cause, as dell’Arco mentions when he points out that ‘The automobile was for Balla a temporary pretext for painting and not the point of his work – an object and not a subject.’[5] Here we see then that the focus is not on the car, or even the speed of the car, but on the very concept of speed itself. As we can derive from the title of the work, the focus here is on abstract speed, and as such an intangible concept that evades adequate representation.

It is through this sense of abstraction that this work can be seen as sublime, as Balla is attempting to come to terms with an immaterial and inexpressible idea, and it is in his failure to fully address this idea that he makes us aware of what Immanuel Kant refers to as the ‘inadequacy of the imagination.’[6] We can be aware that the painting is addressing this concept of speed, but can we fully comprehend what that actually means? We are aware that there is a meaning to be found in the work, yet we are unable to fully grasp it. In this sense we can see the work as a reflection on the inability of the mind to fully comprehend what it is being faced with. This inability has the potential to overwhelm, leaving us with a feeling of the sublime.

In the Critique of Judgement, Kant suggests that the sublime ‘is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it…provokes a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added sense of its totality.’[7] Therefore the sublime can only be achieved when we are confronted with the thought of something that is devoid of or detached from a conceivable form. As Donald W. Crawford suggests in Kant’s Aesthetic Theory, ‘The Sublime is considered formless because we cannot unify its elements spatially or temporally in sense tuition.’[8] And although this painting is not entirely formless, its abstract presentation does allow it to create an impression of formlessness in the viewer. We can comprehend, due to the presence of discernable shapes and colours, some elements of the painting; for example, we can hazard a guess that we have a blue sky, a green landscape and a white road. Yet the fragmented, abstract presentation of these elements ensures that we cannot ‘unify its elements’[9], and so cannot fully comprehend what we are being presented with, resulting in a confrontation with the sublime.

So we can see then that in this painting, the wider work of Balla and of the Futurist movement as whole, there is an expression of the necessity of abstraction in order to achieve the sublime. As echoed later by Barnett Newman in his essay ‘The Sublime is Now’, ‘The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist in the reality of sensation,’[10] and, more explicitly, ‘if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?’[11] It is impossible to create a sense of the abstract, the inconceivable, and by extension the sublime, without the work itself being at least somewhat abstract and inconceivable; and so therefore Balla’s work must be abstract to a certain extent in order to be effective, simply because this concept of speed is abstract and indescribable in its essence. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement, in his ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ professes that:

We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed…Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space dies yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.[12]

So this concept of speed, in the sense as seen by the Futurists, has never before existed, so it would therefore be impossible to identify, confront and understand this concept by relying upon artistic principles rooted in the tradition of the past, so the creation of an artistic style that has never before existed is seen as imperative.

It is important to note that, due to the very abstraction and degree of impenetrability that enables feelings of sublimity, all of these concepts discussed so far cannot be inherently found within the painting itself, and so therefore we must assume that the sublime feeling one can get from this work is also not inherent. As mentioned, the sublime in this instance is derived through the individual mind’s inability to comprehend, and so the painting must be a vehicle or a stimulus of this message, rather than containing or being the message in itself.

So if this painting cannot be inherently sublime, and the sublimity is achieved – or at the very least instigated – within the mind of the viewer, then one cannot possibly achieve any sublime feeling from the work without completely relying upon the senses first. It is only through viewing the work that we are able to generate a mental feeling of the sublime, and so all that we observe in the painting acts as a catalyst for this mental picture that we synthesise. So if we accept the importance of the external senses in garnering a sense of the sublime, then we must also assume that nothing can be sublime without being somewhat grounded in the real, the comprehendible.  Therefore a balance must be struck between what Newman criticises as a ‘blind desire to exist in the reality of sensation’[13] and a pure abstraction that is so far beyond comprehension that its effect is somewhat nullified. Therefore, despite any abstraction, a work must still maintain some sort of correlation or allusion to reality, or as dell’Arco puts it in Futur-Balla, ‘Indeed, this is the moral of abstraction: although nature is left behind it is inevitably returned to.’[14]

Here we see then that the sublime must surely lie not beyond the realm of comprehension, but beyond the realm of a full comprehension. So in order for a work to have the potential of conveying a feeling of the sublime, the metaphorical must be reconstituted as the literal. We can see this reconstitution evident in this work by Balla, as we have this abstract concept of speed presented to us in a way that we are at least somewhat familiar with. As Anton Bragaglia, a photographer and fellow futurist, once noticed, there was in Balla’s work a ‘“mental vision” that was over and above optic vision’,[15] and that ‘looking at [a] landscape, Balla influenced it with colours…suggestive of a mental vision.’[16] Balla’s work then is effective because it manages to simultaneously be both beyond comprehension and yet still somewhat grounded in familiarity to a degree that hints at a meaning that is never fully revealed. It is in this awareness of a meaning that can never be fully recognised or understood that the work can become sublime to the viewer. Balla himself stated that ‘to be convincing, every abstraction must start from the force-forms of real life.’[17] Thus we see that although the responsibility lies with the mind to comprehend what information it receives, it is still wholly reliant upon the senses, and it is for this reason that a work of art must surely negotiate a balance between the real and the abstract in order to effectively evoke a feeling of the sublime, something that this work manages to achieve.

[1] Umberto Boccioni et al., ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’ in Futurist Manifestos, ed. by Umbro Appollonio (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973),pp.27-31, p.30

[2] Maly Gerhardus and Dietfried Gerhardus, Cubism and Futurism (Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1979), p. 81

[3] Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, Balla: The Futurist (Milan: Mazzotta, 1987), p.20

[4] Ibid, p.76

[5] dell’Arco, Balla: The Futurist, p.76

[6] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgement, ed. by Paul Guyer, trans. by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.141

[7] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. and ed. by James Creed Meredith (South Carolina: Forgotten Books, 2008), p.68

[8] Donald W. Crawford, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974) p.99

[9] Ibid.

[10] Barnett Newman, ‘The Sublime is Now’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 2nd edition, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003), pp.580-2, p. 581

[11] Ibid, p.581

[12] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ in Futurist Manifestos, pp.19-24, p.21-2

[13] Newman, ‘The Sublime is Now’, in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas p.581

[14] Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, Futur-Balla (Milan: Electa, 1986), p.21

[15] Ibid. p.20

[16] Ibid. p.20-1

[17] Dell’Arco, Balla: The Futurist, p.80