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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Central Rotunda - Mathematics and Physics

  • John Mosley's Caption
  • Allegory and History
  • Monumental Men
  • Source/Citations

From Mosley's pamphlet, "The Hugo Ballin Murals at the Griffith Observatory" (Los Angeles: Published by the Griffith Observatory, Department of Parks and Recreation, City of Los Angeles, 1998):

“From left to right, the Greek mathematician Poppus of Alexandria holds entwined circles and a triangle. The Greeks developed geometry some 2500 years ago. Behind him is an ibis, which Egyptians identified with the god Thoth, measurer of time and inventor of numbers.

The Arab studying the slab celebrates the contributions of his culture to mathematics, specifically the Arabic numbers we still use today (and which replaced the cumbersome Roman numerals), algebra (an Arabic word and an Arabic invention), and the transmission to Europe of the Hindu concept of zero (which makes decimal notation possible).

The seated man surrounded by experimental apparatus represents physics, the study of matter and energy. He gazes into the murky unknown, perhaps looking for inspiration in understanding how nature works. The little figure above him is descending amid rays to earth from the infinite.

Continuing to the right, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) derived the law of gravity, explained the spectrum of light, and developed the important branch of mathematics known as calculus. He gazes into a globe while facing three medieval students of ‘natural philosophy,’ as physics was then called. The student in the foreground holds a jar of water with a cloth in it to represent capillary action. The second student drops the ball to illustrate gravity. The third holds a horseshoe magnet, and behind him is a magnetic needle pointing north.”

As in Ballin's other panels at the Griffith Observatory, most of the figures in this panel represent famous scientists, each depicted holding props and wearing costumes signifying his identity. Perhaps most interesting in this panel, however, is Ballin's inclusion of the symbolic character seated in the center. The allegorical figure bears striking similarity to others he painted in the period: he wears ordinary, everyday clothes that reveal his muscular body, thereby representing the common man. Here, this "average Joe," surrounded by technologies like those on display at the observatory, seeks inspiration and understanding. Ballin uses another, smaller allegorical figure and rays of light descending from above to represent divine inspiration, as he did in several of his other murals. 

That Ballin placed this "average Joe" at the center of the panel suggests that he agreed with Griffith's populist notion that “awareness of the heavens was linked to self-development” and that making science more accessible to the public could “revolutionize the world."True, most of the figures in the painting are "great men" whose prolific contributions to mathematics and physics helped to create the modern world. But Ballin's inclusion of the central figure also relayed his belief that the "Advancement of Science" and society more broadly depended on the inspiration and ideas of "average Joes" as much as it did those of "great men." Ballin designed his murals to educate and elevate the public who visited the observatory and clearly believed his murals served a public purpose. Their classical style and composition differed sharply from murals painted by others in Los Angeles at the time and he rejected the trend towards "eclectic public modernism" among his peers, but as this panel shows, Ballin shared some of their impulse to represent everyday people and reflect the experiences of the public who would visit the observatory.

In addition to including an allegorical representation of the common man in this panel, Ballin also honored the contributions of Greek, Egyptian, Arabic and Hindu scientists alongside perhaps the most famous physicist at the time, Sir Isaac Newton. Like other murals in the observatory, Ballin's representation here shows that he believed properly educating the public about the history of science demanded that they be informed about the multicultural, interethnic influences on "the Advancement of Science," not simply the contributions of famous Anglo Europeans like Newton. Rather than offer a triumphalist version of the history of science that underscored the inherent intellectual superiority of western civilization, Ballin's murals remind visitors that "modern" science would not exist without the "advancements" made by scholars and scientists of other, non-western societies. In doing so, Ballin showed a desire to represent all of Los Angeles' multiethnic residents, suggesting the ideals about representation and public art popular among the artists who embraced "eclectic public modernism" in the 1930s influenced his work.

Caption excerpted from John Mosley's pamphlet, "The Hugo Ballin Murals at the Griffith Observatory" (Los Angeles: Published by the Griffith Observatory, Department of Parks and Recreation, City of Los Angeles, 1998).

1. Mike Eberts, Griffith Park: A Centennial History (Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1996), p. 90.


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