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.

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