De Chirico’s Metaphysical and Post-Metaphysical Art

Piazza d'Italia con piedistallo vuoto, 1955

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (1955), oil on canvas, 55 x 35.5 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

The current exhibition Giorgio de Chirico: Il volto della Metafisica (Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 30 March-7 July 2019) explores the recurring manifestations of Metaphysical Art (and definitely non-Metaphysical Art) in the oeuvre of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). The exhibition covers the artist’s Metaphysical, Neoclassical, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Metaphysical periods; the only era not represented adequately is the Symbolist (or Böcklin) period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This catalogue, written in part by the exhibition curator Victoria Noel-Johnson, will be useful standalone publication because it goes beyond the standard iconic Metaphysical paintings that are commonly reproduced in books. Readers get a good view of de Chirico’s lifetime production in all its diversity, reiterations, inconsistencies and peculiar paradoxes. The art is arranged by theme rather than style or period. The English version of this volume has been designed specifically to act as a survey of Giorgio de Chirico in the English language rather than acting as an exhibition catalogue per se.

After studying in Munich and cultivating a youthful infatuation of the Symbolism of Italy-based Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin, de Chirico initiated Metaphysical painting in 1910. These scenes of Italianate architecture, generally public spaces, mostly deserted, seen at twilight. The raking shadows, illogical perspective and pungent colours (with green skies) were powerfully original. They made a strong impression in the last Salons before the First World War and elicited praise from Apollinaire. He moved to Paris to advance his career in the city most receptive to new art. During the war he served in the Italian army and was stationed in Ferrara. The art that he left in Paris was taken by his landlord to recompense for rent payment and were sold for a pittance against the artist’s wishes. There, when he had time to paint, he developed a more complicated detailed approach to Metaphysical Art over 1915-8. These paintings included maps, pictures, more interior scenes and new elements (such as mannequins, biscuits, geometrical apparatuses and so forth). Upon returning to Rome on New Year’s Day, 1919, de Chirico renounced Metaphysical Art and embarked on a period of Neo-classicism. The influence of Antonello de Messina, Perugino, Raphael and other artists can be seen in the early post-Metaphysical periods. In the Neo-Baroque period (described c. 1938-early 1960s) was influenced by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Fragonard, Delacroix, Fragonard and Watteau.

Noel-Johnson describes the artist’s post-Metaphysical periods as such: “De Chirico spent several years producing pastiches of ancient and Old Master works shortly after arriving in Rome in 1919. […] He returned to the great masters with renewed fervour in c. 1938 through to the early 1960s, after which he dedicated the last decade of his life (the Neometaphysical period of 1968-78) to the reworking of popular themes found in his work of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, such as the Italian Squares, The Disquieting Muses, Ferrarese Interiors, Trophies, Horses on the Seashore, Gladiators, Mysterious Baths, Furniture in a Room, and Furniture in the Valley.”[i]

The long shadow of Metaphysical Art over the production of the artist was apparent to him. He was well aware of the criticism that his post-1918 output was dismissed outright by the Surrealists and other supporters of his early period. De Chirico’s later production is a battleground for those holding opposing positions on matters of authenticity and reproduction. Was de Chirico making variants of his own paintings that were genuinely felt and engaged the artist?

de Chirico muse inquiet 97x66

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Le muse inquietanti (late 1950s), oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

De Chirico had difficult interactions with Surrealists. He appreciated the support and income he gained from their support for his Metaphysical paintings in the 1920s, when he struggled to sell his art. The Surrealists considered his Metaphysical paintings as revolutionary and liberating; they imitated them and tried to replicate their atmosphere; they rejected his Neo-classical paintings. He participated in some meetings, events and exhibitions arranged by the Breton group but he was sceptical of the value of these activities and critical of their Communism. He resented their rejection of his later art and he was angry at the abuse (some of it very personal) he received from them. He was furious about the faking of his paintings by Oscar Dominguez, encouraged by Breton, which were exhibited at Galerie Allard in June 1946. De Chirico would later suffer more pernicious faking activity which undermined his oeuvre so thoroughly that experts, the artist’s foundation and the artist himself noted that some forgeries had been included in early catalogues of his art. For the rest of his life, the painter struggled with attributions – real, fake and ante-dated.

The selection of art is satisfyingly broad. It is difficult to gain loans of the most valuable and rarest Metaphysical paintings, but this exhibition is an opportunity to use these limitations to our advantage by mixing well-known pieces with less famous pictures. The versions of classic compositions are later variants or copies by the artist. The most startling pictures are the Neo-Metaphysical paintings. The assertive colouring and the sun and moon symbols – linked by cables or tubes to their unilluminated negatives – are departures from the Metaphysical works. The brushwork is also denser and the pigmentation is heavier. The clarity of lighting of later pictures contrasts with the crepuscular quality of the Metaphysical pictures.

Offering to the Sun (1968) has a stylised sun at the horizon, connected to fire on an outdoor hearth. A black crescent moon is linked to a red moon, secreted within a building, like a prop in a stage play or a tool in a garden shed. It is an extraordinarily bold concept and an inspired inclusion. The Ferrarese interiors are in versions of the 1960s or 1970s. Clusters of props, tools and armatures inhabit rooms with views upon Italianate towns, New York City skylines and seashores. These present conundrums of representation – the relative validity and inter-relations of parts of differing registers. In The Great Mysterious Trophy (1973) has a group of architectural fragments, sculpture parts and a painting in an interior; through windows, we view Classical temples and pillar sections in landscapes. De Chirico treats temples quite differently from post-ancient Italian buildings. While the post-ancient Italian buildings are inhabited and situated within streets, squares and yards which afford communal spaces which contain (or possess the possibility to contain) objects, architectural parts, monuments and figures, the temples are isolated, uninhabited and bereft of life, isolated on rocky slopes with no paths or agoras. The Italianate buildings are permeable, habitable and locations of encounter; the temples are solid, uninhabitable and exist as symbols only. De Chirico’s temples are like building blocks – generic, self-contained, arbitrarily placed.

Corazze con cavaliere, 1940

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Corazze con cavaliere (natura morta ariostea) (1940), oil on canvas, 87 x 112 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

Portraits and especially self-portraits are typical of de Chirico’s emphatically conservative contributions to this traditional genre. They are extensions of Renaissance and Baroque painting, only the heavy, direct handling of the paint and strong contrasts mark out de Chirico’s art as different. Whether that difference came from choice or instinct is not clear. The artist’s numerous recursions to Metaphysical art and combined styles during all periods show that he was never fully immersed in the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters, despite his reading of Cennini and his writings on grounds, glazes and paint formulae. Rather than being a resident of Old Master territory, de Chirico was a visitor – albeit a respectful and attentive one.

The paintings are supplemented by prints and drawings, of varying degrees of finish. The full suite of 10 lithograph illustrations for Cocteau’s book Mythologie (1934) is exhibited. They feature de Chirico’s Mysterious Baths. The memory of seeing reflections on a waxed parquet floor inspired the development of stylised water in the group called the Mysterious Baths. The pencil-drawing illustrations for Siepe a nordovest (1922) by Massimo Bontempelli play with tradition and conventional illustration, with touches of de Chirico’s theatrical Modernism. The characters are depicted as ersatz marionettes. A handful of highly finished drawings of Metaphysical compositions show de Chirico’s skill as a draughtsman. (A handful of nudes from 1930s-1950s show de Chirico was a sensitive painter of the figure when he took time. It would be worth isolating these and investigating this theme in a discrete exhibition and publication.)

An essay by Ara H. Merjian examines Roberto Longhi’s 1919. This negative review was said to have damaged de Chirico’s reputation in Italy at the point when he had hoped to establish himself as an inheritor of the Italian Renaissance. Another essay draws parallels between the statements and principles of Renoir and de Chirico. Other essays address other aspects; large reproductions of the exhibited art fill a section; a chronology will be of use as a guide for general readers; a handful of short reviews and polemical texts by the artist allow us to judge de Chirico’s ideas first hand. Overall, this catalogue can be warmly recommended as a good survey of de Chirico’s art and ideas.

 

Victoria Noel-Johnson (ed.), Giorgio de Chirico: The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art, Skira, 2019, hardback, 256pp, 209 col. illus., $40/£29.95, IBSN 978 8 857 240 589

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

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