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Art & artists

The haunting surrealist imagery of Giorgio de Chirico

— January 2015

Article read level: Academic

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Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of Fatality, 1914, oil on canvas, 138x95.5cm, Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, permanent loan to the Öffentliche Kunstmuseum, Basel ©2014 Artists Rights Society, New York/SIAE, Rome Photo: Martin P. Bühler, Öffentliche Kunstsamm

De Chirico's work exerts an enduring fascination; a new book probes its enigmas

Giorgio De Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris by Ara H. Merjian

Joyful but involuntary moments of the metaphysical can be observed both in painters and writers. Giorgio de Chirico

The imagery of Giorgio de Chirico continues to haunt us a century after its inception through innumerable reincarnations in advertising or cartoons, in book covers and Playstation games. Its power to attract is rooted in a profound ambivalence: it seems to connect both with visions of modernity, even the future, yet it remains at the same time redolent of past and indeterminate ages. This binary response, with its dual acknowledgement of terrors and uncertainties of fate, with a nostalgia for ancient and lost knowledge, but also the possibility of its recovery and its revelation, is a core theme of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose crucial importance was always acknowledged by the artist.

Ara H. Merjian focuses on just four works, all from 1914 and painted in Paris, in an intensive exploration of de Chirico’s Metaphysical painting against a number of historical narratives. These are, notably, the expansion of the modern metropolis and the whirlwind of literary and artistic ideas that preoccupied the Parisian avant-garde. Not only is the author’s depth of art historical research and reference impressive but his visual searches are constantly intriguing. A colour postcard of a train carving through the streets of de Chirico’s home town, Volos, substantially supports the validity of its counterpart in his paintings. The photograph of a Parisian street vendor’s handcart adds historical substance to the unlikely bunch of bananas posed in the foreground of The Gare Montparnasse.

It is at the heart of de Chirico’s enterprise that this railway station’s potentially modern and banal location should be sited in an area whose name evoked the terrain of the deities of ancient Greece.  Merjian’s educated eye discovers a hint of de Chirico’s extreme perspective in Gustave Caillebotte’s depictions of modern Parisian street junctions.  Architecture asserts a role of claustrophobic enclosure in the pyramidal shaped painting, The Enigma of Fatality. The most significant single element here is the detached red hand (derived from a shop sign for a glove seller), pointing out some ploy of chance played out on a chess board.   Nietzsche is invoked here for his core argument, following Heraclitus (an early Greek philosopher, known as ’the obscure’, and much celebrated by de Chirico), of ’the eternal return’ and the false promises of progress.

The level of enigma is ramped up even further in The Evil Genius of a King with its display of objects that, though they might be precisely described, can nonetheless be scarcely identified.  There seems to be some association with 16th-century navigational and astronomical devices but then, much further back, with inscribed tablets used as tools for divination. The author also speculates that they might  have been prompted by de Chirico’s response as a child to his engineer father’s drafting instruments.         

The last painting addressed, The Seer, introduces that signature inhabitant of de Chirico’s world, the mannequin, a figure without hearing or speech and with only one rudimentary eye, that is to say, ideally equipped for inward sight and prophecy. Here again this binary function emerges, for what could be more contemporary than a shop-window dummy, yet what more ancient than the simple, faceless, wooden figures, of which none survive but which are mentioned by early writers as ritual objects that preceded the marble sculpture of Classical Greece? De Chirico’s mannequin emerged contemporaneously with the call of the influential theatre designer, Edward Gordon Craig for actors, perverted by the taste for Realism, to be replaced by ’ber-marionettes’ in order to restore the original ritual potency of drama.  

Merjian’s book discloses a forensic familiarity with the content of the paintings and a wide-reaching knowledge of recent scholarly study.  Whilst no major insight is charted into the role of Nietzsche’s writing on de Chirico, he clearly establishes the close parallels of their understanding of the nature of the circularity of time and the necessity for creative individuals to structure their lives in sceptical independence from prevailing conventions of belief. It could not be described as either a quick read or an easy read – the author admits to the possibility that readers might find it ‘exasperatingly dialectic’ – but it is a profound and rewarding read and an important contribution to de Chirico studies. 

Giorgio De Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris  by Ara H. Merjian is published by Yale University Press, 2014. 352 pp., 83 colour and 160 mono illus, ISBN 978-0-300-17659-9


Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

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