||Issue Date: 12 / 2012
The Silent Towers of Giorgio De Chirico
From time to time new artists arise whose way of seeing the world, both actual and imagined, change our way of seeing the world. Our response to their visual presentation is stimulated in an uncanny fashion. Surrealist painter Giorgio De Chirico is one of these artists.
Giorgio de Chirico, 5 December 1936
De Chirico (1888-1978) was born of an Italian mother from Genoa, and his father traced his lineage to Sicily. Giorgio was born in the Greek city of Velos. Not surprisingly Italian and Greek influences are detectable in his early work. His father was a railroad engineer and planned rail lines throughout the Greek province of Thesally. Also not surprisingly, trains are an important component in his son’s paintings.
Well aware of his extraordinary gifts De Chirico aimed for the highest accolades his craft could bestow. “To become immortal a work of art must escape all human limits; logic and common sense will only interfere. But once the barriers are broken it will enter the region of childhood vision and dream,” he wrote.
But first the young artist had to acquire the basics. His studies took him first to Athens, then to Munich. There he came under the influence of the painter Arnold Boecklin whose fantasy world included mysterious islands painted in the most violent colors and many of whose canvases inspired musical creations, especially those of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. The other major influence was the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman.
At first De Chirico painted the land and seascapes of Italy and France But very early on he shifted to what are considered the landscapes of Surrealism: the shadowed towers, city squares, abandoned monuments of his fevered imagination influenced especially by the cityscapes of Turin whose ordered streets, elaborate squares and tunnels he loved. De Chirico had lived there briefly in 1911. Together with his friend the Italian painter Carlo Carra, he founded the scuola metafisica (metaphysical school) that was in many ways the forerunner of the Surrealist movement, a movement of which he was, for a number of years, the prime proponent.
What Is Surrealism?
Surrealism was the favorite creative movement of the artistic avant garde of the 1920’s. Basically it is a way of practicing an art form that does not have its roots in the real or visual world, but relies on the subconscious to provide subject as well as execution.
You can typically recognize a Surrealistic work by its subject matter which is often bizarre or a combination of several diverse, unrelated elements. For example a tower may stand in an abandoned square with a train passing near its pedestal. Or a still life painting may contain a basket of fruit but there might also be a glove, a pair of eyeglasses or a slice of the moon somewhere in an upper corner. Nothing is considered too odd or peculiar about any of these representations. The style of the painting itself can be abstract or it can be realistic or some combination of the two. With such freedom, Surrealistic art can conveniently at times avoid critical judgment.
Surrealism owes a debt of gratitude to Sigmund Freud whose psychoanalytic theories, particularly his dream theory, had an enormous cultural impact. Their dreams started many painters and poets on their Surrealist adventure. Surrealism was also a reaction of sorts to the perceived failure of civilization, evidenced by the horrors of World War I.
As was often the case of 18th and early 20th Century European art, the Surrealist movement had its share of French poets including Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon and others under the guidance of its philosopher and spokesman, Andre Breton. The interpreters of Surrealism in the visual arts included the American Man Ray, the Spaniard Joan Miro, the Germans Max Ernst and Victor Brauner, Frenchmen Andre Masson and Renee Magritte, among others.
It was not until the 1920’s that the Surrealists began to dominate the field in France and Italy competing all the while with the “Fauves” (a group of painters so named for their wild color representations). The Fauves included Maurice de Vlaminck, Henry Matisse and the early Pablo Picasso.
Identifying De Chirico’s Work
Two elements predominate in Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings. One is sculptures. He was fascinated with sculptures of ancient Greek gods and goddesses, and depicted them often, their ghostly white outlines shining against artificially lighted backgrounds. The second are architectural creations that defy the laws of both gravity and logic. They dominate in his work.
De Chirico was a master at atmospheric presentations. In The Enigma of an
Autumn Afternoon (1914) a Greek statue faces a temple like structure. Shadows begin to overtake the bright sky. Like so much in De Chirico’s work there is a kind of melancholy that seems to penetrate the scene. In part that might be an expression of his own loneliness and isolation.
De Chirico oscillated between Italy and France and was never really at home in either. Symbolic of his feeling is a painting entitled The Anguish of Departure (1913-1914). There is the inevitable train in the distance, a packing crate pulled by two horses is in the foreground. Two figures appear to be saying good-bye and there is an overall atmosphere of regret at leaving although the departure seems to be an inevitable consequence of a previously made firm decision.
When human figures are introduced in De Chirico’s paintings they are usually in the form of mannequins. The figures are so positioned as to form an identity with the architectural forms that make up their surroundings. Many times the relationships of figure to background are hard to explain, in other words they are enigmas, a word and concept deeply loved by the artist.
De Chirico’s figures underwent a significant change over the first two decades of the 20th Century. In The Seer (1915), the mannequin figure is stiff. The head is not very clearly defined. About ten years later The Painter’s Family of 1926 seems more solid. The hands holding a baby are clearly defined and assume a sheltering pose. The architectural elements in the painting might be taken for a child’s building blocks.
A 1914 Portrait of the poet Guillaume Apolinaire is one of De Chirico’s masterpieces. The poet is seen wearing sunglasses, somewhat incongruous given the classic rendering of the face. Behind the poet is his profile and a white circle indicating where a bullet would have lodged in a failed assassination attempt.
Gelatin molds are mounted on a marble column behind Apolinaire’s head.
The influence of De Chirico on American artists can definitely be seen in the work of Jackson Pollock and in the representation of objects in the canvases of many Pop artists.
Poetry and De Chirico
De Chirico wrote a novel of sorts, Hebomeros. It is peopled by a superman who has apparently no conscience and his arbitrary acts seem very off-putting. The painter apparently tried his hands at poetry as well. Although almost all of his poems have disappeared, we still have a small fragment of his work.
And how the sun comes to a high halt
In the middle of the sky.
And the statue in eternal happiness
Immerses her soul in contemplating the shadow.
More than his own poetry, De Chirico’s art had a significant impact on contemporary poets. The poet John Ashbery named one of his books of poetry after one of De Chirico’s paintings, The Double Dream of Spring. Poet Sylva Plath, inspired by a De Chirico painting entitled The Disquieting Muse (1957), built an entire poem on the images and gave it the same title. In the poem we encounter three ladies: “Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.” Still the primary tenor of the poem is one of complaint aimed at her mother and the way Sylvia was brought up, and not the De Chirico painting.
It is interesting to note that De Chirico abandoned Surrealism and moved towards an older and more realistic painting style that, to many early fans, seemed quite conventional and unremarkable. Art critics speculate the change was for financial reasons, that he painted what would sell the best. It is also fascinating that later he reverted back to his earlier style, imitating his post-World War I painting.
The City of Rome has preserved the memory of De Chirico converting his home of 30 years into a house museum. His attic studio preserves many of his finest works.
Stern, a poet and writer on the arts, has written more than 50
articles on various aspects of the arts for The World & I Online
since 2004. His new book is Touchstones.