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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Central Rotunda - Metallurgy and Electricity

  • John Mosely's Caption
  • Allegory and History
  • Cinematic Influence
  • Source/Citations

From his 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):

“Staring into a fire is Saint Florian of Austria, the patron saint of the metallurgists. According to tradition, he could extinguish a blacksmith’s fire with a single pitcher of water. Behind him is a converter used in the Bessemer process of making steel from iron.

The right two-thirds of the panel is devoted to electricity. The kite and the hand drawing a spark from a key remind us of Benjamin Franklin’s demonstration that lightening is a form of electricity. He survived the experience, but later experimenters did not. Below are the towering but dirty smoke stacks of a modern coal-fired power generating plant. The sphere and the two pillars represent part of a high voltage generator similar to our Tesla Coil in the West Gallery. The long spark discharged from it wraps around the kite.

At right is Otto von Guericke of Prussia (1602-1686), inventor of the air pump and the ‘Magdeburg hemispheres,’ which demonstrated the power of air pressure. In about 1663 he constructed a primitive electricity-generating machine that consisted of a globe of sulfur attached to a wand. The globe was electrically charged by friction and glowed when he rubbed his hands against it. The large circle mounted behind him is a stylized dynamo, used to generate electricity, and at lower right is a cut-away drawing of an internal combustion engine like the one that powers your car.”

In the center of this panel, Ballin celebrated Benjamin Franklin's famous kite experiment demonstrating the nature of lightening and electricity. Although French scientists had originally postulated that lightening was a form of electricity, Franklin is widely credited with having demonstrated that scientific principle with his experiment. Ballin honored Franklin's contributions, not by depicting Benjamin Franklin himself, but rather by including the famous kite and key from his experiment. Ballin's choice to use the objects as symbols both reflects how widely-known Franklin's experiment was at the time and suggests that Ballin wanted to highlight other less well-known figures in the history of electricity like the two that surround the kite and the key.

The influence of film on Ballin's painting style is clear in his portrayal of "Saint Florian of Austria" in the left side of this panel. As compared to the figure on the right side of the painting, Saint Florian is dramatically illuminated using lighting techniques popular among filmmakers in Hollywood to enhance the storytelling in their films. He wears martial attire and wields weapons, further conveying his power and might. Just looking at this figure, one can almost hear echoes of "O, Fortuna" from Carmina Burana playing in the background.

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). 

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