by Roderick Conway Morris

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De Chirico: Painting landscapes of the mind

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA, Italy 9 February 2007
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
A 1914 portrait of Giorgio de Chirico's father
as he appeared to the artist
in his dreams and nightmares.



Giorgio de Chirico set himself the unusual goal of 'painting that which cannot be seen.' The upshot was Metaphysical Art, which sought to reflect strange and elusive psychological landscapes, fugitive states of mind and to capture 'the eternity of the moment' in physical form, in paint.

The Metaphysical phase of de Chirico's output lasted only from 1910 to 1919, in a career that was to span 70 years, with several changes of direction and style. Metaphysical painting had no clear antecedents: with its invention de Chirico's position as one of the most original and influential of 20th-century artists was assured.

'De Chirico' at Palazzo Zabarella in Padua, Italy, is an ambitious attempt to display the entire trajectory of his career from start to finish. Sixty-five of the hundred works are from private collections, an essential contribution since so many of de Chirico's key works remain in private hands. The curators, Paolo Baldacci and Gerd Roos, both experts on the artist, have been energetic in tracking down these pictures and the resulting show is enjoyable and enlightening. (The show continues until May 27.)

The painter's life was in many ways a catalogue of wrong turns and setbacks, many of them self-inflicted. Undoubtedly he suffered at critical moments from incomprehension, but by constantly rewriting his own biography, marketing his own copies of earlier works, denouncing as fakes genuine paintings for reasons of personal antipathy towards their owners, he himself did much to confuse his public and his collectors. And the miasma of uncertainty that came to surround his œuvre provided an ongoing field-day for fakers, making him possibly the most counterfeited of last century's artists.

De Chirico was born in Volos in Greece in 1888, the year that Nietzche began to reveal signs of madness in Turin. The artist came to identify closely with the German philosopher (even with his more minor ailments), while a book he admired immensely was Carlo Collodi's 'Pinocchio,' for its evocation of a strange, childlike world, so artfully created by an adult. These two authors appear bound together in the symbolic yellow volume in many of his metaphysical canvases.

Although the painter later insisted on his Italian identity, his family was a typical product of the 'Levantine' middle class of mixed racial origins in the urban centers of the Ottoman Empire. His father, a railway contractor, was born in Istanbul, where his forebears had lived for more than a century and a half. His mother, from Smyrna, was of Italian, Greek and Turkish lineage. Giorgio's and his brother Alberto's knowledge of Greek, Italian, French and German, characteristic of Levantine culture, made them cosmopolitan and able to mix with ease when the family embarked on a peripatetic existence in Europe from 1906 onward. But Giorgio especially suffered from the long-term sensation of never truly belonging anywhere.

In later life de Chirico downplayed the importance of his formative years in Greece, although his metaphysical work contains much evidence of it. He was certainly not unaffected by that powerful sensation of the abiding presence of the ancient gods and myths that the Greek landscape can impart, and delighted with the idea that the Argonauts had set sail from Volos. An early painting, the result of his studies at the Academy in Munich (1906-1909), 'The Departure of the Argonauts,' has a statue of Pallas Athene on the beach. This sculpture was in fact outside the Volos railway station, and its placing here prefigures the slightly anomalously positioned statues in the deserted arcaded squares of the metaphysical cityscapes. And the peculiarity of the railway track in Volos, running down the middle of the main street, might help explain the presence in these paintings of vagrant steam engines and stock cars in city piazzas.

Recollections of de Chirico's time in Athens, where neo-Classical buildings were rising in virtual open countryside and grand boulevards suddenly petered out into rustic wildernesses, may also have contributed to the eeriness and sense of disjointedness of his dreamlike metaphysical scenes.

When de Chirico showed 30 of his initial Metaphysical pieces in his studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris in 1913, the response was favorable. However, he then made an agreement with the art dealer Paul Guillaume, the first of several such financially disadvantageous arrangements that would leave him without a reserve of works to be sold when the value of them subsequently rose.

Four years later, the former Futurist Carlo Carra, who painted alongside him in Ferrara, Italy, in 1917, extensively plagiarized de Chirico's 'Mannequin' series of interiors with faceless dummies and weird combinations of objects, successfully selling them in Milan, while breaking an agreement that the two artists would exhibit together. This event, and Giorgio Morandi's similarly highly derivative works, gave the erroneous impression that there was a cooperatively arrived-at 'Metaphysical School,' depriving de Chirico of the credit due to him as the originator and only true exponent of the genre.

Inadvisedly, de Chirico chose Rome rather than Paris to exhibit his pictures after World War I. Half a dozen canvasses shown there in 1918 received a hostile reception. The following year his first solo retrospective there was greeted with an even louder chorus of criticism and was lambasted in the press. The only picture to sell was a more or less conventional portrait, the sole non-Metaphysical work on offer.

These reactions, which took him by surprise, triggered a major crisis of confidence. He began to concentrate on more conventional scenes and classical figures inspired by antique statuary and Renaissance painting. Oddball elements persisted, but the metaphysical spirit, the disquieting strangeness and suggestiveness, the delving into the psyche and the sense that what could not be said in words might yet be expressed in enigmatic images, was lost.

Some 30 years later, his brother perspicaciously recorded that for de Chirico painting had always been a means rather than an end. Indeed, Metaphysical Art had been more a mode of thinking than of painting. De Chirico was talented, but never technically brilliant. He now managed to convince himself that the manner of painting, not the subject, was the road to great art. But this ran contrary to his deeper instincts and his introspective personality.

Yet the 1920s and '30s were not devoid of interesting works. Intriguing, idiosyncratic features kept surfacing. In the mid '30s a series of his classically inspired 'Mythologies' metamorphosed into the more unpredictable 'Mysterious Baths' paintings and prints, of bathing huts and swimmers improbably immersed in pools of parquet flooring.

During this period, de Chirico contrived to commit himself to two Paris agents, obliging him to produce near identical works for both. He fell out with the Surrealists, who had previously heralded him as their presiding genius. He published a successful novel, but acquired a domineering Belorussian girlfriend -- later his wife -- Isabella Pakszwer, who encouraged him to copy earlier works and falsify dates.

He reached his artistic nadir during World War II, spent in Italy, with his so- called neo-Baroque period, when he primarily painted portraits of Fascist apparatchiks and self-portraits (more than 50 in all) often in historical costume. Having been the master of painting the invisible, de Chirico became all-too palpably visible in fleshy, melancholy middle age.

It was not until he was in his 80s that the artist returned, as it were, to his roots, in his 'neo-Metaphysical' phase (1968-74). Old themes were revisited, but this time in toy-town bright colors. And some new themes emerged. No longer disturbing, the works have the eccentric charm of an odd child's picture book.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024