Hugo Ballin (1879-1956)
Bay District Automotive
Oil on canvas board, 22 x 28 inches. Signed lower right: "HUGO BALLIN". Inscribed "Hugo Ballin N. A/ 567 Amoloya Dr./ Pacific Palisades" in black crayon on back of canvas board.
Luce, Caroline, Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles (website maintained by University of Southern California) at https://scalar.usc.
Acquired from Samuel Collection via eBay auction on September 14, 2022.
2 1/4-inch reproduction antiqued frame.
Born into a prosperous family of German-Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1879, Hugo Ballin began his arts education at the age of seven. His early classical style was the product of his early mentorship under Charles Wyatt Eaton (1849-1896), who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme. Ballin continued his studies at the Art Students League in New York before embarking on a three-year sojourn to Europe (primarily in Italy) where he drew inspiration from Renaissance art, especially the styles and techniques of the Italian fresco artists. Returning to New York in 1905, Ballin’s classical, allegorical style made him a darling of the burgeoning Beaux-Arts movement. Within two years, he became a National Academician, garnering the National Academy of Design’s Thomas B. Clarke Prize, Julius Hallgarten Prize and Isidor Gold Medal. By 1912, he’d received his first major commission: twenty-six murals for the Executive Chamber of the new Wisconsin State Capitol.
By the time the Wisconsin murals were unveiled in 1917, the Beaux-Arts movement was in decline. Ballin suspended his painting career and turned to the nascent film industry, joining Goldwyn Pictures in New Jersey as an art director and production designer. By 1921, he had relocated to the Pacific Palisades, where he wrote,* directed and produced silent films for his own production company, sometimes featuring his actress/wife, the former Mabel Croft. When his company failed in 1925, Ballin returned to painting, executing mural commissions for private residences and public institutions in the Los Angeles area including the Griffith Observatory, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, LA County General Hospital (now known as Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center) and Burbank City Hall. Although his murals gradually incorporated elements of the more modern, masculine style that became popular during the WPA era, he was largely critical of the shift from the classical aesthetic he’d long embraced. It was this antipathy, ironically, that helped him secure public commissions from conservative patrons wary of the more politically-charged style of the younger generation of progressive artists.
Bay District Automotive** is a curious anomaly in Ballin’s oeuvre. Painted almost entirely in sepia tones with white highlights, the work may have been intended as a promotional illustration for the nonprofit organization of the same name, which was formed in 1947 and disbanded eight years later. Alternatively, it may have served as a mural study, although there is no known correlation to any completed mural. Whatever the intent, the work is remarkable for its elaborately engineered composition, incorporating an abundance of signage, five vehicles (including a bicycle and doll’s carriage) and a dozen figures (excluding the pin-up nude in the auto shop interior, a dog and cat) engaged in a range of activities within the confines of a limited space.
*Ballin maintained a parallel career as an author, publishing several novels including The Woman at the Door (1925), Stigma (1928), and Dolce Far Niente (1933).
**The work is not expressly titled.
Fig. 1 - Ballin and his assistants work on his mural at El Rodeo Elementary School, Beverly Hills, CA, 1934. Photo from the Hugo Ballin Papers (collection #407), Charles Young Library, Department of Special Collections, University of California Los Angeles, box 17, folder 1.