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Art & artists

Shadows and metaphysics in de’ Chirico’s universe

— May 2011

Article read level: Academic

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Cover of Nature according to de’ Chirico by Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.)

Nature according to de’ Chirico

Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.)

The Homeric myths had profound meaning for de’ Chirico. Growing up in Thessaly and Athens, he was convinced of the timeless relevance of these ancient narratives, an understanding shared with Freud and Nietzsche. His art made constant reference to Hermes, Ulysses, Ariadne, Apollo and Dionysus and others, but often transplanted to more modern or ambiguous scenarios – his companion, Isabella Far, disports herself on a 1930s beach as Diana, accompanied by the artist’s pet Great Dane.

This book is the most extensive and sumptuous collection of Giorgio de’ Chirico’s paintings currently available. The multiple qualities and complexities of meaning enfolded within his work reveal themselves through a process of concentrated immersion, which these beautiful illustrations allow. It is the catalogue for the exhibition held at Rome’s Palazzo delle Exposizioni between April and July 2010.  The work is presented on a thematic rather than a chronological basis, avoiding the outdated notion that there were somehow ‘good’ and ‘bad’ periods in his output.

The reference in the title to ‘Nature’ is perhaps a little provocative: we cannot expect from de’ Chirico much direct representation of the natural world – the plastic fruit in his studio museum, presumably once props for still lifes, give a clue to this. The show argues that his concern was with the deeper underlying power of nature, revealed through philosophy and through art.  His depictions of fruit and wine derive far more from Dutch painters of the Baroque or Courbet than from any market stall. Ultimately it is the fundamental nature of reality, which lies behind appearance, that interested de’ Chirico.  His Metaphysical paintings, those that are most abstract in their pictorial structure, are based on geometrical solids and ratios of proportion first theorized by Pythagoras.

The introduction by the curator Achille Bonito Oliva employs a linguistic mode  of semiotic play and unresolved paradox, which some readers might find entertaining, but very few would find enlightening.   This is all the more ironical since, in contrast, de’ Chirico’s own writing on art is always both inventive yet precise:

Nature can afford to be prodigal in everything; the artist must always be parsimonious. Nature is prolific to the point of confusion; instead theArtist must always be reserved.

A short anthology of the artist’s writings, with a preamble by Andrea Cortallessa, is valuably included in the book, demonstrating that this should always be the first step towards a fuller understanding of his purposes.

Vincenzo Trione considers the potency of the cast shadow in de’ Chirico‘s paintings.  Shadows ensure the sense of mystery and menace of the Italian Piazza subjects.  Trione compares this disturbing theatrical effect with examples from German Expressionist film and a recent graphic novel, reminding one of those primal fears of losing one’s shadow and the Doppelganger that emerged in the horror stories of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, shadows in de’ Chirico’s paintings can be compared to those marking the hours on a sundial and hence signifying the mysteries of time, past, present and future.  This is the argument of Francesco Poli, who convincingly analyses the painter’s pictorial methods. 

To return to the question of ‘Nature’, Sabina D’Angelosanti writes on the visually and conceptually complex Metaphysical works, where curious and often ambiguous objects are assembled in impossible or barely readable spaces. She concludes that, in this work, ‘art becomes nature as a creative force’.  The theme of the Mysterious Baths, which emerged in the 1930s and proved so fertile in its multiple variations, in which men divest themselves of their dull modern suits in changing huts and emerge, transformed, in the channels of some seaside pleasure park, is another theme of the book.  Katherine Robinson explores de’ Chirico’s apparent engagement with the ancient concept of the essential elements of earth, air, fire and water.  This might add further explanation for the locomotive that invades many of his Italian Piazzas, for here are all those elemental forces at work in harmony. More conventional depictions of nature do find a place, although the classical landscape inventions and the still lifes owe more to the art of the museums than to direct observation. A couple of studies of sunlit woodland subjects included here do, however, offer refreshing exceptions to this rule.  Victoria Noel-Johnson explains the artist’s empathy with the Classical topic of arcadia, with its dream for humanity of eternal ease and contemplation within a sustaining nature.

Further essays are contributed by Lucca Massimo Barbero and Emily Braun and appendices are devotes to a biography and a bibliography but the real appeal of the book has to be the copious illustrations, including many rarely published works from private collections.  Through them, readers may immerse themselves at length to the wide and deep reaches of the de’ Chirico universe.

This book is published by Federico Motta Editore and distributed by Antique Collectors Club, 2010. 296 pp., 230 col illus. ISBN 978-88-7179-649-9



Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

Background info

Giorgio de’ Chirico (1888–1978) was born in Greece but both his parents were Italian. He travelled and worked in Athens, Munich, Italy and Paris before the First World War, when he served in the Italian army. In 1917, along with Carlo Carrà (1881–1966) he created Pittura Metafisca, a quasi-Surrealist art movement. These haunting images of empty streets and stylized cityscapes are now scattered through a number of museums, including London’s Tate Modern, New York’s MoMA and Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.

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