“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, exhibition review

I. Exhibition

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(Image: “Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, Tornabuoni Art, London, installation view, 2017, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, the current exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (4 October 2017-12 January 2018) presents 24 paintings, two drawings and some lithographs in an overview of the Italian’s painterly output, with other documentary material. The complexity, accomplishment and breadth of the work here attest to the richness of de Chirico’s achievements.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) is best known as the leading figure in the Italian Metaphysical Art movement, which had its heyday during the First World War. De Chirico established the style in 1910. There are two paintings here dating from that era: The Revolt of the Sage (1916; Estorick Collection) and The Great Tower (1915). Though Metaphysical Art was inspired by Italian art of the Early Renaissance (Uccello, Giotto, et al.), these two paintings demonstrate a Modernist audacity – the extreme format (the exaggerated vertical of the Tower) and the extreme close-up (The Revolt’s depiction of biscuits shown in the foreground of an ambiguous architectural setting).

De Chirico had been very familiar with Symbolism, having been a follower of Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin in his earliest years as a painter. This exhibition includes an early painting The Path (Temple of Apollo in Delphi) (1909) which employs the Swiss master’s typical gloomy local colour, flat non-directional lighting and disquieting atmosphere. The cult of Arnold Böcklin was intense and widespread in Europe in 1890s and 1900s, especially admiring of his five versions of The Isle of the Dead, which were best known through numerous reproduction prints and journal illustrations.

In 1919 de Chirico was one of the many Modernist artists who turned his back on the avant-garde and sought the comfort and security of Classical art, part the appel de l’ordre that promised a haven from the alienating modern world that had ravaged Europe. Just as Dada was metamorphosing into Surrealism and at a point when the early Surrealists were about idolise de Chirico’s Metaphysical art, he denounced Metaphysical Art and Modernism more generally and began to paint still-lifes, landscapes, horses, portraits and mythological scenes. He researched the materials and techniques of the Old Masters and Mannerists. He copied Classical art and painted his own mythological scenes in traditional style. A still-life with fish and another with fruit are typical works from the early 1920s. There is also a half-length nude of his wife Isa, painted in 1930.(1) It is complemented by a small self-portrait head.

Later de Chirico’s view on Metaphysical Art softened and he blended his disjointed motifs, Classical imagery and a Renoiresque touch and palette. The resultant beach scenes of nudes, antique figures, horses and ancient ruins are appealing and yet deceptively modern in their disjunctures and unusual colour combinations, including extensive passages of monochrome. However, the nagging suspicion is that the artist was indulging himself – and his viewers – too much. He repeated his motifs and compositions. Luckily, the examples here are varied and the monochrome aspect lends them a certain asperity that can be absent in other versions.

De Chirico became a Mannerist, Rococo painter and Romantic by turns and that shuffling of established anachronism can pall. De Chirico’s greatest weakness was his Old Master complex, the conceit that he only had to paint like the Old Masters to be considered an Old Master. He had skill and knowledge in abundance but it is ironic that the very art that would elevate him to the status of a Great Master was his accomplishments as a Metaphysical painter not as a recycler of Mannerism or Romanticism. The very art that was a unique contribution to Modernism was his entry into Parnassus. Did the artist ever recognise this one wonders?

Yet while de Chirico was indulging his Old Master complex he was also producing some radically modern and very unusual works. Warrior Mannequins (Two Archaeologists) (1926) is one of those experiments. Two fantastical figures fill the corner of a room. They are composed of architectural elements and wild pictorial components. The painting style is rough. There is evidence of radical reworking. It is a hard picture to love or even like but it shows terrific creativity and invention. It is bursting with strange ideas and improvisatory bravura. It will be a hard painting to sell, in many ways it is ugly and untypical, but it is as lively and puzzling as anything here. It is evidence of de Chirico’s mischievous spirit and confidence.

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(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Bagni misteriosi (Mysterious Baths) (1968), oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.61 inch/73 x 93 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Another group of innovatory works from the inter-war years were the Mysterious Baths. In these paintings fantastically shaped baths filled with monochrome water animated by schematic zig-zag patterns (complete with multi-colour balls and changing huts) are distributed across de Chirico’s characteristic plains and piazzas. They are populated by undemonstrative bather-ciphers. These are more playful, puzzling and less decipherable than the earlier Metaphysical compositions.

Other common themes represented in the selection are mannequins of composite elements, gladiators and horse with rider. De Chirico painted at a general domestic scale; an exception is Divinities by the Sea (1936) at 122 x 244 cm. It shows gods and horses ranged among ruins on a shore. It is painted in near-monochrome with ground and sky in blue, appearing as a giant tinted drawing. The paint is applied very thinly. The use of board as a support is uncommon in de Chirico’s oeuvre.

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(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (Italian Piazza with Empty Pedestal) (1955), oil on canvas, 21.65 x 13.97 inch/55 x 35.5 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Commercial pressures led de Chirico to start to paint copies, variants and – dare one say it? – pastiches of his classic Metaphysical pictures for the post-War market. Such was the demand for classic Metaphysical paintings that de Chirico even dated paintings with false early dates. One Italian dealer even stipulated in a contract which compositions had to be duplicated and at which sizes. One wonders what de Chirico thought when he was painting these duplicates. How did he feel – humiliated, bored, proud or just numb? Did he derive any pleasure from remaking his youthful works? Did he invest any of himself in these duplicates? How much does any painter invest of himself in anything he makes?

This exhibition includes letters, photographs, lithographic prints and contemporary publications related to the artist, which are presented in vitrines in the two levels of the gallery. De Chirico wrote poems, stories and novels and some of those publications are displayed here in early editions. A catalogue has also been published, which I have not seen. This exhibition provides a fair survey of de Chirico’s art in all its diverse, perplexing and surprising complexity.

(1) The catalogue establishes that the subject of this painting is actually Cornelia not Isa.

II. Catalogue

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This dual-language large hardback catalogue for the exhibition “Reading Giorgio de Chirico” at Tornabuoni Art, London (closes 12 January 2018) includes essays, illustrations and plentiful information which throw much light on the exhibition. De Chirico wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs and art criticism. Some of the painter’s thoughts on art were formed in a poetic allusive manner akin to that of prose poems.

The inclusion of much written material is the reason for the exhibition’s title “Reading de Chirico”. Poems and letters exhibited are reproduced in the catalogue and translated. They include and Metaphysical poems and love letters to Cornelia, written at a time of romantic turmoil. The artist had just married his long-standing partner Raissa before separating from her. This period (1929-30) was also when he met his future second wife, Isabella. Two important letters dated from 1910 and 1911 are printed. These establish the date of the foundation of Metaphysical Art. Recent attempts to locate the origins of Metaphysical Art to 1909 – and to attribute the foundational ideas to de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio – have not been generally accepted. These letters bolster the case for the accepted history, namely that de Chirico commenced painting in a Metaphysical style in the summer of 1910 in Florence.

The Metaphysical Art journal has been publishing de Chirico’s writing (and writing about him, as well as letters to him) over the last decade in Italian, French and English. This has contributed to a wider understanding of de Chirico as a writer and the links between his writing and art. This catalogue and exhibition further that aim.

There are two articles by the de Chirico on lesser known contemporary artists and other more general pieces on de Chirico’s art. There is an angry polemic against the domination of Modernism. “No one raised a voice in defence of reality with regard to art or to life itself. Fake intellectuals, having renounced truth, which they considered lost, tried to expel reality from all manifestations of the spirit. These fake intellectuals of our unfortunate age…” In another article he explains the persistent melancholy of absence in his art.

I remember the strange and profound impression a picture seen in an old book bearing the title The World before the Deluge made upon me as a child. It represented a landscape of the tertiary period. Man had not yet appeared I have often meditated on the strange phenomenon of “human absence” in metaphysical aspects.

The lithographic illustrations of Mysterious Baths images for Cocteau’s Mythologie (1934) are reproduced in full in the catalogue. (They are displayed only partially visible in the exhibition vitrine.) Illustrations of works such as The Daughters of Minos (Antique Scene in Pink and Blue II) (1933) show just how peculiar they are. In this small painting one sees classical motifs on a generic shore, predominantly blue in hue, with discrete areas painted in monochrome red-pink and orange-pink. Like an optical illusion, it gives the impression of being a classical work or art while aggressively asserting it is nothing of the kind. It exists in two states: classical and Modern. In this instance, the modes are incompatible and contradictory. In terms of figural motifs and iconography it is classical; in terms of handling and palette it is Modern. They fluctuate.  When we consider one the other does not impinge upon us; as soon as we consider the other aspect the first is forgotten (or at least impossible to incorporate into our consideration). Like the famous optical illusion, we can see the old woman and the young woman in one picture but never at the same time. If de Chirico understood what he was doing in this painting (in terms of optical perception and modal schematism) is unclear.

An essay by Gavin Parkinson discusses the reception by the Surrealists of de Chirico’s writing and the artist’s views on Symbolism, Impressionism, Courbet and other art. Parkinson’s mention of the criticism of Magritte, de Chirico and Picabia’s “bad painting” cites de Chirico’s use of bright colour in the post-War variations of classic Metaphysical compositions as a conscious response to that criticism or even a reaction to Pop Art. Parkinson suggests that de Chirico’s “bad” colour was an attempt to combat the fashionable connoisseurship that generated demand for his Metaphysical paintings. It seems much more likely that the artist, bored and belittled by the requirement to paint replicas at the behest of dealers and collectors, was simply attempting to retain engagement during the painting process by exaggerating the colours. The aim was most likely an attempt to see how variation might intensify a feeling or introduce an element of unpredictability into the stultifying work. The powerful palette is an attempt to stimulate the artist himself.

In the Neo-Metaphysical period (1960s-1978) the painter needed to sustain his engagement and bring something new to established compositions. The addition of the Mysterious Baths, sun-on-easel and the sun/moon-cord motifs were a means to provide the painter with a syncretic language, vary his art and summarise his former periods in his last period. It seems a private choice, one detached from consideration of the debate over “bad art”, Pop Art or the expectations of others. The Neo-Metaphysical works are one of de Chirico’s most important achievements. With droll wit and disconcerting mental agility de Chirico reassembled his artistic world in a theatre of cosmological paradox which is deeply unsettling and to this day barely understood.

Katherine Robinson (ed.), Reading de Chirico, Forma Edizioni/Tornabuoni Art, 2017, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., English/Italian, £45, ISBN 978-88-99534-49-3

 

 

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