13 ways of looking at Giacomo Balla’s “The Hand of the Violinist”

In a recent exam, I asked my student to attempt to identify an unknown work of art. The work in question was an oil painting, Giacomo Balla’s Hand of the Violinist (1912)–or a slightly cropped version of it. Wouldn’t do to show the artist’s signature at the very bottom of the work!

Balla, Hand of the Violinist, 1912.

Balla, Hand of the Violinist, 1912.

I typically ask my students to make educated guesses concerning the artist, date, medium, and the “subject or type of subject matter.” Most do very well, but this time the subject matter proved much trickier than I had envisaged. Most correctly identified a violin and/or the hand of a violinist. But many did not.

Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns

Here, then, are thirteen ways of looking at Balla’s Hand of the Violinist. They range from the dead-on to the what-the-heck.

“A man playing the violin (or his arm anyways)… the violin is drawn multiple times, rising from the middle up to the left margin of the work, becoming ‘clearer’ as it does so. The hand also clears as it moves up, its fingers crisscrossing multiple times as the multiple perspectives from different moments in time overlap in his wrist.”

“The subject matter appears to be stringed instruments. A violin is either being brought up or put down. The rest of the painting emulates the vibrations of strings, almost as if there is a harp in between the viewer and the violin.”

"Almost as if there is a harp..."

“Almost as if there is a harp…”

“Looks like the subject matter is the dynamism of someone playing the guitar—the beginnings of the interest in cinema, study of motion… To be moving around this much, the upbeat music must have been what influenced him.”

“Byzantine theme.”

the-hand-of-the-violinist-1912.jpg!HD, detail 5

“Like a fiery setting sun…”

“I’m not sure about the subject matter, kind of looks like a fiery setting sun.”

“The image kind of looks like a duck flying but it definitely portrays motion.”

the-hand-of-the-violinist-1912.jpg!HD, detail 3

“Kind of looks like a duck”

“When I first look at it, it looks like an abstract painting. Then I squint I can see there are dogs lined up on the track as they are [illegible] to race. Some have their heads down and some have their heads up. The gold makes it hard to tell what’s happening in the foreground.”

“Subject matter is difficult–maybe it is a dog of some sort or a farming field.”

“It appears to show someone working in a field—perhaps a farmer of some sort.”

A figure running diagonally?

A figure running diagonally?

“This unknown seems to test the boundaries of time in space by depicting what looks to be a figure running diagonally from the top left to bottom right.”

“A war piece; I say this because the picture looks as if it’s a struggle between some people which puts me at a mind of war.”

“You can see in the painting what seems to be praying hands and what seems to be people dancing within the background. The hands also seem to be reaching for something, so instead of praying, they’re grasping for the dancing figure infused into the painting.”

“It is of folded and unfolded hands, unfolding”


So what do you see in Balla’s painting? Click here to comment.