by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private collection
The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon by Giorgio de Chirico, 1911-12

Art of the metaphysical: from the outside looking in

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 25 October 2003


'In the shadow of a man who walks in the sun, there are more enigmas than in all religions, past, present and future,' wrote Giorgio De Chirico in 1913. Later that year, Guillaume Apollinaire first used the word 'metaphysical' in print to describe the pictures of De Chirico, a term the poet had very possibly heard the artist himself employ in speech. In due course, 'Pittura Metafisica' (Metaphysical Painting) became the accepted label for the works that De Chirico, and later Carlo Carra, Giorgio Morandi and others, created from 1909 into the early 1920's.

In 1909, the First Futurist Manifesto was published and De Chirico embarked on his first Metaphysical work, making this year something of an 'annus mirabilis' in giving rise to the two most important home-grown Italian art movements of the 20th century.

Pittura Metafisica is now the focus of an exhibition, 'Metafisica,' at the Scuderie del Quirinale here. It contains 114 pieces by the Italian founders of the genre and by other artists, including Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi, who were influenced to varying degrees by the movement. (The show continues until Jan. 6.)

The notion of 'Metaphysical Painting' was something of a contradiction in terms, but its oxymoronic flavor well suited an art founded on paradox that strove to lend the 'eternity of the moment' (to use one of De Chirico's formulations) permanent physical expression.

Typically, De Chirico's Metaphysical pictures present disconcertingly deep perspective spaces, often strange city squares, with rapidly receding arcades, brick walls, towers or chimneys, punctuated by statues, steam engines and isolated figures; or sharply raked internal views, populated by faceless tailors' dummies, maps, geometrical instruments, toys, bits of food and other anomalous objects. The aim is to disturb and disquiet, and to make the viewer reassess the nature of reality and search beneath its surface for elusive memories and surprise insights.

De Chirico and his brother, Andrea, also a painter and writer (who later adopted the name Alberto Savinio), were born of Italian parents at Volos in Greece, and the country, its myths and legends remained a lifelong inspiration for both of them.

Giorgio De Chirico studied fine arts in Athens, then in Munich and Florence, before settling in Paris in 1911. On the way to France he visited Turin. The city already held enormous significance for him. This was the place where Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophy and theories of the cyclical nature of time had come to fascinate the budding painter, had first shown signs of madness in 1888, the year of De Chirico's birth. And the city's architecture, squares and arcades left an indelible impression on him.

De Chirico's feeling of not properly belonging anywhere contributed to his sense of alienation, a powerful element in his Metaphysical paintings. In fact, he was welcomed into Paris's cosmopolitan artistic circles, where he met, among many others, Picasso, Brancusi, André Derain and the Italian-Polish, Rome-born Guillaume Apollinaire, who became a champion of his art.

In 1913, De Chirico sold his first work at the Salon d'Automne, and his career was under way. In the following year, he did one of his most remarkable Metaphysical paintings, a portrait of Apollinaire (a work unfortunately not lent from Paris for this show), and was taken up by the dealer Paul Guillaume.

At the outbreak of World War I, Apollinaire volunteered to fight for France, and when Italy joined the Allies in 1915, De Chirico and his brother returned to Italy to join up. But for this, an Italian 'school' of Metaphysical painting might never have come about. While the brother was sent to the Macedonian front, De Chirico was posted to Ferrara, whose wide, eerily atmospheric, virtually empty streets, especially in the so-called 'Herculean Addition,' the unfinished area laid out by Duke Ercole I in the 15th century, seem even today like products of the De Chiricean imagination.

The painter was eventually deemed unfit for army service because of a nervous disorder, and was sent to a military hospital in the city, where he was joined by Carlo Carra, a refugee from both Futurism and the front lines. The two men painted side by side, Carra quickly absorbing De Chirico's style and subject matter, but De Chirico, too, benefited from this collaboration.

Characteristic of this period was a series of claustrophobic interiors, commanded by featureless dummies and miscellaneous clutter, and glimpsed exterior views, sometimes imported into the inner space in the form of canvases. Around 1918, Morandi from nearby Bologna came in contact with the duo, producing his own distinctive and in many ways technically superior versions of similar metaphysical themes.

As World War I came to an end, there began in avant-garde Parisian circles, which had previously been investigating alternative art forms and modes of expression, a return of sorts to classical traditions, in what Jean Cocteau dubbed a 'call to order.' De Chirico could well have claimed to have anticipated this by several years, having never rejected the classical past, trying rather to find ways of integrating it into his contemporary vision, as his Parisian colleagues now set out to do.

During the war, De Chirico had managed to continue sending pictures to Paul Guillaume, and when the dealer auctioned off the contents of the Italian's Paris studio, many of the pictures were bought by the founder members of the Surrealist group, who had been introduced to De Chirico's work through Apollinaire, whom they also greatly admired.

The contribution of Metaphysical painting to Surrealism has always been recognized. But it is worth remembering that, as De Chirico's pictures won wider appreciation in avant-garde circles in Paris, since the man himself was no longer there to explain them (he did not return to France until the mid-1920's), the Surrealists began to place interpretations on them that differed markedly from his own. For De Chirico's main philosophical guide had been Nietzsche, whereas the Surrealists looked to Freud's theories of the unconscious, in which the Italian painter appears to have taken little interest.

Pittura Metafisica was relatively short lived as a full-blown movement, although De Chirico continued to make copies of works of this period long after he had radically changed his style. He made, to take but one instance, a score of copies of 'The Disquieting Muses,' eventually lending the painting's title a new and unintended meaning.

The show's selection of related works subsequent to the heyday of the Metaphysical school goes some way to illustrating its considerable influence. But there are many omissions here: We have, for example, Mario Sironi, but not Felice Casorati; Magritte, but not Paul Delvaux, and Germany goes entirely unrepresented.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023