Great Works: Dynamism of A Dog on a Leash (1912) Giacomo Balla

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

The figure in Leonardo Da Vinci's drawing "Vitruvian Man" has four arms and four legs. It isn't a freak. It's a diagram, showing possible alternative positions for a man's limbs. This image is designed to demonstrate how the human frame can be made to fit within both a circle and a square – just as Vitruvius, the Roman architectural theorist, said it could. Note that this is a drawing. At Da Vinci's date, you wouldn't find this kind of behaviour in a painting.

This behaviour? Classical European painting has rules about how the figure is to be depicted. No part of a figure may be duplicated, multiplied. If a figure is shown with two right arms, that's because it literally has two right arms. It's a mythical creature. On the other hand, if a figure is in motion, waving its right arm say, this is never to be conveyed by giving it two right arms (to indicate two stages of the action). This device is sometimes used in a drawing. The idea of breaking down a movement into separate positions wasn't unknown to our ancestors. But between medieval and modern art, the trick is kept out of painting.

It couldn't be kept out of photography. In the 1880s, the all-round scientist Etienne-Jules Marey invented the chronophotographic gun. Through this device he was able to record successive instantaneous stages of movements onto a single photographic plate.

In their time, Marey's studies of horses, birds and insects were a revelation. He thought of them as a contribution to anatomy. He proved that cats always landed on their feet. Today, what survives of his research is mainly a kind of look. To show bodies multiplied and superimposed has become a normal visual language of motion.

In strip cartoons, multi-limbed figures appear all the time. They stand for bodies who are running or flapping or just for people who are doing a lot of things simultaneously, in a terrible rush. The multiplication and motion effect has allowed pictures to extend their repertoire enormously, to overcome their stasis in all kinds of ways.

And in the early 20th century, it was through the example of chronophotography that the effect finally made its way onto canvas. The wish to imitate the machine and the mechanised image seduced the would-be modern artist. We find oil paintings doing something that they had never done before – using multiple limbs to indicate bodies in motion. It appears in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and in the works of the Italian Futurists. Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash is one of the most striking.

A lady is walking a dog; a widow and her pet. The lady has roughly 15 feet, variably solid and see-through. The dog has eight countable tails, while its legs are lost in flurry of blurry overlays. Four swinging leads go between them. The picture's sense of movement (if that is what it actually is) is created out of stark black forms and weird flowing lacey veils.

Even without these multiplication and motion effects, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash would be doing something that's novel. There aren't many previous paintings that present us with such an abrupt close-up. Balla takes the kind of subject that Impressionism had specialised in, a street scene with bourgeois promenaders, but he picks out only a single detail, an almost randomly chosen clip, and makes it the focus of the whole picture.

This is partly what makes this painting a comical work: a trivial subject is made into the main event. The title itself is bathetic. Dynamism, with its connotations of heroism, of the mighty modern machine world, is set against Dog. (Of course, the Italian doesn't have that neat double D: Dinamismo di un Cane al Guinzaglio.) And what a dog! It's nothing else than a dachshund, the twee prim sausage dog with its famously low clearance.

And then there's the way the close-up is cropped. Balla anticipates Tom and Jerry. The dog's lady owner is given the same framing as the maid in the cartoon, who never appears in full body, only her stomping slippered feet. Or rather, that is a feature of the earlier, better-drawn, classic episodes of Tom and Jerry – and as there, so here. We get a ground-level perspective, the dog's view of the world. We get the human world reduced, cut off at the knee.

There's also something funny about Balla's treatment of motion. You might be inclined to say that Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash does a painted version of chronophotography, but that's not quite right. The dog and lady may be meant to be moving, but the way they're depicted, it's more as if they're moving on the spot.

Their legs have multiple positions, indicating brisk walking. They should be tripping along the pavement. Their bodies, on the other hand, have only one position in the picture, so their bodies are not advancing accordingly. If they're moving at all, it's much slower than the speed at which their feet would seem to be carrying them.

It's an awkward sense of movement that results. The lady's bunch of hard heels, scrumming under her skirts, promises a general trip-up. (An apparently unnecessary group of four kick out in front). The dog, meanwhile, gives the impression of frantic scampering. Its legs thrash beneath a body that makes no progress at all.

In fact, looking at this dachshund, a motion effect doesn't seem nearly enough to account for its appearance. It could as plausibly be a mini-beast as a lapdog. Its multi-limbed condition surely has a double explanation: the fact that it's running and the fact that it's a kind of louse.

But anyway, these are all rational explanations – and probably too rational, when it comes to evoking the feelings at work in this picture. You can treat Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash as if it were solution to an age-old pictorial problem: how to convey bodily movement with a static image? And no doubt this is one of Balla's points of inspiration. It's not what he ends up with.

Multiplications, echoes, flurries, blurs: these motion effects, supposedly capturing the action of the walking legs, become a way of creating new sensations and new phenomena. Other kinds of movement are evoked (the shuffling of a pack of cards, the rotation of a propeller) and weird types of embodiment (ghosts and ectoplasm). And the visible shape of the woman – shall we call it a pantomime octopus? – is among the strangest found in all of modern art.

About the artist

Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) introduced graffiti into art. One of his earliest masterpieces is 'Bankruptcy', a closed business building scribbled all-over. He was a leading member of the Italian avant-garde group, the Futurists, though a cautious one. He signed the manifestos, but he is missing from the famous five-man group photo of 1912. In Futurist spirit, Balla's art is inspired by movement and speed, and he created one the great whooshes of art, 'Abstract Speed – The Car Has Passed'. But his pictures themselves are never intoxicated with violence. On the other hand, during the First World War he designed an 'Anti-Neutral Suit' to be worn as a gesture against peace-mongers, and in the early 1920s he designed stamps for the inauguration of Mussolini's Fascist state. Later, he went decorative abstract. Later still, conventionally figurative. The 'Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash', his and Futurism's finest work, is sadly not on view in Futurism, the show on at Tate Modern until 20 September.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence