The Future of Flowers
Essay written during my junior year of college for an upper level course on early Modern Art. The assignment was to examine a piece of art in a local museum and examine it in depth.
In the circular halls of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, there sits a collection of wooden flowers. However, these are not ordinary flowers. In fact, without a quick glance at the museum’s wall label, the viewer may not recognize them as flowers at all. Composed of precisely cut pieces of standard sized wood, the prevailing shapes of these mysterious plants are geometric and angular. Bold forms and bold colors define the pieces. This grouping of small, brightly painted wooden sculptures are what Giacomo Balla described as his Futurist Flowers. As one of the crowning pieces of Balla’s attempt to reconstruct the universe, this grouping of ten Futurist Flowers reflect a violent, artificial interpretation of something that is traditionally viewed as a symbol of peace and nature.
Flowers are almost never associated with violence, which is why it is so fascinating that Balla would choose to approach these subjects from a Futurist point of view. He deals with these challenges head on, and works to take something completely opposite to futurism and shift its imagery so that it may fit into this new world of metal and plastics known as a “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe.” A written manifesto co-authored byFortunato Depero on this subject serves as the basis and drive behind Balla’s Futurist Flowers, which were crucial to the recreation of an “artificial landscape.” Balla imagined what was described as a plastic complex, composed of “an abstract landscape of cones, pyramids, polyhedrons…” and he brought these concepts to vivid life in his construction of his wooden flowers. He simplifies nature to its most basic into striking, geometric forms.
In Balla’s garden of Futurist Flowers, gentle curves are few and far between. Avoiding the forms seen most frequently in nature, Balla relies mostly on the use of perfectly straight lines in the production of his flora, replicating not the sweeping stems of nature’s plants but instead the sharp, regulated forms of the manufactured. The Futurists held the artificial, the manmade in the highest esteem, so it is only fitting that Balla would draw inspiration from this process in the creation of his replacement flowers. He even used the simplified shapes of the flowers to allow the mass production of these works, with the intention of them being freely available to the public. What Balla ultimately produces is a manmade version of something once only seen and created by nature. But the shapes of these Futurist Flowers serve another purpose, beyond creating a manmade alternative to nature. Where the straight lines meet, sharp, piercing angles appear and crossing panels slice through the flowers. These pointy edges and sudden divisions found on the wooden flowers allow the sculptures to emanate the violence so adored by the Futurists. Balla and others believed that war and violence were the ultimate solutions for the problems of the modern world. Laid out in F.T. Marinetti’s “Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” one of the main intentions of the Futurist movement was to “glorify war—the only true hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchist, the beautiful Ideas which kill, and the scorn of woman.” (Chipp 286) It was these goals that drove Balla to recreate these flowers as symbols of violence and danger. Even the concept of the “scorn of woman” is reflected in these interpretations of flowers. Normally a symbol of beauty and fertility, Futurist Flowers are violent, sharp and could possibly be perceived as an attack on the femininity of the very nature of flowers themselves.
Another aspect of the form crucial to making Balla’s wooden flowers Futurist is the repetition and layering of shapes. The multiples of the same forms on each individual flowers creates the dynamism that is so important to the ideals of Futurism. The futurists embraced movement not as a fluid motion, but rather as a series of individual positions that occurred simultaneously. Artists like Balla showed dynamic movement through the layering of many moments in time upon the same subject. This concept appears vividly in the case of the Futurist Flowers. Layered forms create sculptures that would reflect the active movement of the flowers, perhaps replicating how the Futurist Flowers might have moved in a breeze. The motion aspect of the flowers are also shown by a modification of what Futurist painters called “lines of force” or “force-lines.” Force-lines were contours and edges placed to create a deeper sense of motion, which was intended to “involve the spectator” (qtd. in Chipp 296) in the piece. The sharp edges of the flowers and repetitive lines do just that. With these concepts of dynamism in mind, Balla’s Futurist Flowers are not the static still-lifes of artistic tradition, but instead appear to be in a constant state of motion.
The motion and artificiality of the Futurist Flowers are further emphasized by Balla’s adventurous use of color. Bright, vivid hues adorn all of the sculptures, often at odds with each other in almost gaudy combinations. Vibrant greens are paired with blaring yellows, pinks are placed beside blues. Such strongly contrasting pigments make the flowers feel almost alive, vibrating with the powerful difference in shades. The excited coloration further emphasizes the dynamism within these flowers that were such an important part of Balla’s reconstruction of the universe. However, Balla’s choice of colors do more than just underline the dynamism of the Futurist Flowers. They are crucial to the playful aspect that Balla and Depero desired in their reconstruction. The highly saturated hues reflect those of children’s toys, symbolizing the value of the playful objects which would fill the new world after the cleansing violence of hygienic war.
Another important value in Balla and Depero’s reconstruction of the universe was the idea of objects being mobile. The ideal artifacts of the new universe were small, portable and this concept is reflected vividly in Balla’s Futurist Flowers. The flowers are all quite little, no more than two feet or so in height. They are the perfect size to be carried around, transported with the owner. This would allow an occupant of the reconstructed universe to take their flowers along with them, to create a perfectly Futurist garden wherever they happened to be. The flowers could even be disassembled and reassembled to make them even more portable.
Balla’s Futurist Flowers reflect a movement into what is often considered to be the second generation of Futurists. With this later sub-movement spear-headed by Balla’s “diverse interests” (Futurism 324), artists began to move beyond the traditional mediums of sculpture and painting. The Futurists began to experiment with everyday products, theater designs, and other mediums that would reach the everyday public. The Futurist Flowers are approached from this perspective as well. Even though the flowers are not necessarily what one would consider ‘everyday objects,’ Balla still created them with the intention of the small flowers eventually coming into widespread use. Thin, standardized shapes and panels of wood would have been easy to manufacture and produce for the general public. This is a grand step away from the fine art techniques of the original Futurists, and perhaps more representative of the larger scheme and ideologies of the Futurist movement as a whole.
On a more emotional level, there seems to be something deeply attractive about these otherworldly flowers. They draw the attention of even the layman, someone unaware of the Futurist movement. This observation comes from my own personal experience with the piece. Traversing DC with my mother, we stumbled upon this work in the Hirshhorn. She was immediately enthralled by it. Something about the combination of colors and form really spoke to her. This instant attraction may have been the very intention of the Futurists. If they wanted to recreate the universe, they would need to have the support of the average person. Without individuals to buy and use these goods, there would have been no way for the Futurists to spread their ideal objects into the environment. This concept works best in theory, since the flowers were never produced on the large scale Balla intended, but the concept of beauty from something violent still remains.
Balla’s Futurist Flowers reflect the most important goals of the Italian Futurist movement. Through a combination of sharp lines and shapes juxtaposed with vibrant colors, the flowers emanate the dynamism that Futurism is known for. Through Balla’s skillful use of color and form, these bright, playful, mobile blooms fully represent the theories behind his “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe”.
Chipp, Herschel B. “Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics.” Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. Print.
Dorazio, Virginia. “Giacomo Balla: An Album of His Life and Work.” New York: Wittenborn and Company, 1972. Print.
“Futurism: An Anthology.” Ed. Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.