Although we do not know why Thorvald Hellesen chose to depict a balalaika in this painting, musical instruments in general were a frequent motif in cubist paintings. The relationship between the different art forms, such as music and painting, was also a theme that preoccupied many of the artists of the era. The balalaika has its origins in Russian folk music and is often used to articulate a quick, repetitive rhythm, and both musicality and rhythm typify Hellesen’s painting. The clear colours and the way in which the image is abstracted and dissolved into recurring forms help create a dynamic, pulsating visual harmony.
Around 1920, Hellesen was a member of the progressive art community in Paris and became friends with artists such as Fernand Léger. He was one of few Norwegian artists to be inspired by cubism, but the painting also evinces a keen awareness of the other nascent movements of the time. Along with Ragnhild Keyser, Charlotte Wankel, and others, he is one of the leading Norwegian abstract modernists from the 1920s.
Hellesen was forgotten for a long time. Compared with his Norwegian contemporaries, his selected style was different and radical. He disappeared from the Norwegian art scene after his paintings met little understanding in his native country around 1920, and a decade later he stagnated as an artist. Around 1970 his production was rediscovered, however, and the subsequent appreciation of his art has ensured him a more rightful place in Norwegian art history.
Text: Øystein Ustvedt
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0