Sydney Morning Herald Column

Giorgio de Chirico: Major works from the Collection of Francesco Federico Cerruti

Published March 16, 2018
Giorgio de Chirico, 'The Metaphysical Muses' (1918)

Giorgio de Chirico had an irrascible reputation but never lacked self-confidence. Although recognised as one of great modern artists, de Chirico (1888-1978) was a vehement opponent of Modernism. In his eyes, Cézanne, Matisse and Modigliani were no more than “pseudo-artists”, makers of infantile daubs.
“Naturally,” he writes in his Memoirs, “in order to see and say all this, one must have, in addition to my exceptional intelligence, so far as true painting is concerned, one must also have my mighty personality, my courage and my ardent desire for truth.”
With so many qualities it’s no wonder de Chirico felt besieged on all sides by small-minded, envious enemies. He had become famous in the years before World War I as the inventor of Metaphysical painting – a poetic, symbolic style that took every motif as the basis for deep reflection. When he moved on to a form of neo-classicism, the new works were greeted with hostility or indifference.
For de Chirico there were only two kinds of art: good and bad. Good art had “technique”, bad art was all hype and bad faith. One wonders what he would have made of Francesco Federico Cerruti, a reclusive collector who died in 2015, at the age of 93, leaving almost 300 paintings and sculptures to the Castello di Rivoli on the outskirts of Turin – a city de Chirico declared truly metaphysical.
Eight of Cerruti’s de Chiricos are being exhibited at the Castello alongside the works of leading artists of the contemporary period. For director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and curator, Marcella Beccaria, it’s a first attempt to make sense of one of history’s most extraordinary private bequests. Last weekend the museum celebrated the gift with a day-long conference on private collections and museums.

Giorgio de Chirico, 'Metaphysical Self-portrait' (c.1920), from the Cerruti Collection
Giorgio de Chirico, ‘Metaphysical Self-portrait’ (c.1920), from the Cerruti Collection

Cerruti’s miraculous gift virtually obliges the Castello to reinvent itself as an institution. The museum was founded in 1984, in the former residence of the Royal House of Savoy. The original structure dates from the 10th century, but the most impressive parts of the palace were completed in the 18th century. The gallery was conceived as a showcase of Arte Povera, the avant-garde movement of the 1960s, born in Turin, that made art from poor or industrial materials. To this point the Castello’s permanent collection has been devoted to the work of modern and contemporary artists.
The Cerruti Collection begins with a series of altarpieces dating from the early 1300s. It continues throughout the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods, into the Modernist and the contemporary eras. The list of moderns includes Picasso, Cézanne, Magritte, Klee, Kandinsky, Braque, Bacon, Leger, Ernst, Miro, Giacometti and Modigliani. Modern Italy is exceptionally well represented, with pieces by Boccioni, Balla, Severini, Martini, Morandi, Sironi, Fontana, Marini, Casorati and many more. There are works by Andy Warhol and even Gilbert & George. Cerruti’s final purchase, made shortly before his death, was a Renoir portrait, Jeune Fille aux Roses (1897).
In addition there is a collection of carpets, furniture, decorative arts and rare books. Cerruti, who never married, was a devout Catholic with highly Catholic tastes and an eye for quality. His fortune sprang from his invention of the perfect binding process, which meant that books no longer had to be stitched along the spines. He was the man behind every telephone directory.
Cerruti stored much of this collection in a large but nondescript 1970s villa, barely a kilometre from the Castello. The interior of villa was sumptuously decorated in an antiquated manner, with the de Chiricos hung on mirrored glass panels in an ornate dining room.
Cerruti's villa gives no clues as to what's inside
Cerruti’s villa gives no clues as to what’s inside

Cerruti never lived in this villa, preferring to sleep in a small apartment above his factory in Turin. He would visit on Sundays and have lunch by himself. Perhaps twice a year he would invite some friends. Within the first three months of 2019 Cerruti’s villa will have been renovated and opened to the public.
Christov-Bakargiev, who was in charge of the Sydney Biennale in 2008, is travelling to Australia next week to take part in a gathering of former Biennale directors. She will be keen to discuss a collection that has provided enough material to enable her to spend the rest of her career teasing out links between the art of the past and the present.
Along with the de Chirico exhibition, the Castello is also hosting a retrospective of Gilberto Zorio, one of the original stars of Arte Povera, and a show of emerging international artists called Metamorphoses, put together by Chus Martínez, a curator with a deserved reputation for intellectual rigour.
It is, however, the de Chirco show that is destined to attract the spotlight. The works were selected for the importance they hold in the unfolding – some might say, ‘unravelling’ – story of the artist’s career. First up is The Metaphysical Muses (1918), a small picture featuring two mannequin heads, the clutter of the artist’s studio, and a view from a window of a lonely tower. It’s a classic example of so-called Metaphysical painting, filled with objects that suggest much more than meets the eye.
Metaphysical art flirts with philosophy and poetry, conjuring up feelings of melancholy over the passing of time, and those human creations that now stand as memorials to what has been lost. The mannequin represents the hollow men of today, the long shadow in a city square tells us that the twilight of history is approaching.
Giulio Paolini, 'the House of Lucretius' (1981)
Giulio Paolini, ‘the House of Lucretius’ (1981)

These sentiments are also implicit in Giulio Paolini’s House of Lucretius (1981), which shares a room with The Metaphysical Muses. It consists of two cheap plaster busts on pedastles, facing in different directions. Once again the emphasis on is on the gulf between the present and the classical past.
In other rooms we see de Chirico’s paintings paired with work by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Franz Ackermann, Fabio Mauri, Alighiero Boetti and Maurizio Cattelan. Part of the impact of the show is due to the palatial, elaborately decorated rooms in which works are displayed.
The juxtapositions are bold but plausible, inviting us to look at de Chirico through new eyes, as a precursor of the late 20th century avant-garde. The most provocative pairing is probably di Chirco’s Two Horses (1927) with Cattelan’s Novecento (1900) (1997), a sculpture of a stuffed horse suspended by a harness from the ceiling. De Chirico’s white stallions are all primal energy, but Cattelan takes a more cynical stance. Approaching the milennium he suggests that anyone who believes we learn from the mistakes of history is flogging a dead horse.
Maurizio Cattelan's 'Novecento (1900)' (1997), at the Castello di Rivoli
Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Novecento (1900)’ (1997), at the Castello di Rivoli

Marcella Beccaria expressed the tentative thought that de Chirico would have approved of the hang, but I’m sure he would have hated it. A lifelong enemy of decadence and cynicism, de Chirico would have seen Cattelan and the Arte Povera artists as the opponents of the great and true art he traced back to ancient times.
Because the question of “truth in painting” was just as much an obsession for Cézanne, whom de Chirico despised, perhaps one can only be sceptical when artists talk in absolutes. Even the greatest control freaks must accept that with the passing of time their work will be invested with new meanings by collectors and curators who have a different relationship with the truth.
Giorgio de Chirico: Major works from the Collection of Francesco Federico Cerruti
Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy, 6 March – 27 May, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March, 2018