Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) had no doubts as to his own greatness. “I am an exceptional man,” he writes in his Memoirs, “who feels and understands a hundred times more strongly than others.” In the 1940s de Chirico began signing his works: “Pictor Optimus” (‘The best painter’). It was a riposte to an Italian art scene that had treated him as a pariah and an embarrassment after he adopted a neo-classical style so out-of-step with the times that it bordered on kitsch.
The derision that greeted de Chirico’s late work was inversely proportional to the adulation heaped on his early Metaphysical paintings made in Paris. While everyone can agree on the importance of pictures such as The Uncertainty of the Poet (Tate Modern) or Ariadne (Metropolitan Museum of Art), (both 1913), what came afterwards defied all expectations.
In putting together a retrospective for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955, James Thrall Soby declared de Chirico to be the greatest Italian painter of the century on the strength of his pre-1920s work, but saw everything else as a perverse effort by the artist “to obliterate his own brilliant youth.”
“Fortunately for the history of art,” writes Soby, “he has failed.”
Today we might say it’s fortunate Soby and his colleagues failed to purge the history of art of everything de Chirico produced after 1920. A new retrospective at the Palazzo Reale in Milan suggests the artist was creating outstanding, inventive works right up until the end.
In 1970 the same venue presented de Chirico’s first-ever Italian retrospective. That show was a ground-breaker but the current one argues for a comprehensive reassessment of a problematic body of work. Curator, Luca Massimo Barbero, wants us to look again at more than 40 years’ worth of paintings and graphics that have been dutifully ignored by the gate-keepers of modernism who could only see de Chirico as a heretic who needed to be saved from himself.
Since his death there have been many exhibitions that have sought to reassess de Chirico’s legacy, notably a survey of the late work held at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol in 1985, but the big institutions have been slow to deviate from critical orthodoxy. It’s taken a long time for us to come to terms with de Chirico’s experiments with Neo-Classical and Baroque styles, his preoccupation with ancient Greece and Rome, and his vehement anti-modernism.
Shortly before the Milan exhibition there was a show in nearby Turin called Giorgio de Chirico: Ritorno al Futuro (‘Back to the Future’), which put his works alongside those of contemporary artists who have fallen under his spell. Those strange, late images that were so readily dismissed are now exerting an increasingly strong attraction on a new generation.
Barbero has discovered a revised version of de Chirico. Previously considered to be grumpy, egocentric and reactionary, it’s now possible to consider the proposition that de Chirico was an ironist completely aware of the impression that he made, who took delight in his own notoreity. He is a precursor of Pop Art and of Postmodernism.
In a room that would have made earlier curators wince, Barbero has included a range of self-portraits from the 1940s in which de Chirico portrays himself dressed in the elaborate costumes of the 17th century, or even as a bullfighter. His deadpan expression and grey hair sits awkwardly with these gaudy outfits. Is this a form of self-aggrandisement, as many have believed? It’s more of a parody, suggesting the heroic age of painting is dead.
There’s a similar, oblique humour in a room of paintings of gladiators, who come across as absurd, rubbery figures with glazed expressions, not as tragic heroes.
By grouping works thematically rather than chronologically the show reveals the continuities in de Chirico’s work. Instead of a radical break with the early Metaphysical paintings it’s clear he continued with metaphysical themes right up until the 1970s, in works such as Mysterious spectacle (1971), which shows a schematic sun propped up on an easel placed on a stage. A crescent moon lies nearby, with both heavenly entities casting dark shadows. Sun and moon seem to be props connected to power cords, like household appliances that may be turned on or off.
This mixture of the portentous and the banal is characteristic of Metaphysical painting. Think of the bunch of bananas alongside a classical torso in The Uncertainty of the Poet, or the biscuits and candy stick framed so formally in The Gentle Afternoon (1916).
On an early self-portrait in which he mimics a pose from a photograph of the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, de Chirico wrote (in Latin): And what shall I love if not the enigma? It’s a motto that sums up his Metaphysical project. The simplest definition would be a form of painting that aims to go beyond the physical world, bringing us into the realm of the dream in which objects take on a range of symbolic associations.
These paintings won de Chirico the adulation of the Surrealists, although they proved to be tiresome groupies. One element found in his paintings of that time, which is largely missing from Surrealist art, is a profound sense of melancholy. We look at those empty squares and raking shadows, an imposing clock face, a tall chimney, or a tiny train on the horizon, and feel as if something is about to happen, even if the nature of the anticipated event remains a mystery. De Chirico’s motifs all had personal significance but we read them as archetypes.
One favourite motif is the mannequin – a faceless humanoid that shows human beings as mere automatons at the mercy of fate – or as the ancient Greeks would say, of their personal daimon. In time that mannequin head, which resembles a football, would be mounted on many different kinds of figure. One of the most striking is The Archaeologist (1927), in which the ruins of the classical past make up the body of a figure that reclines in a pose drawn from a famous Etruscan sarcophagus sculpture. The figure appears to have collapsed under the weight of history.
If this image feels vaguely familiar it’s because it was appropriated by Imants Tillers for his large picture, Pataphysical Man (1984) in the Art Gallery of NSW. Tillers, who was still borrowing from de Chirico in his most recent show at Roslyn Oxley’s in September, is one of the Pictor Optimus’s most dedicated Australian disciples, although one can find equally strong traces in the work of Jeffrey Smart, James Cant and Rick Amor, to name three obvious cases.
In one of the final images in the show, Orpheus, tired troubadour (1970), a mannequin-musician has dropped his lyre and seems to be changing from inanimate matter into flesh (or vice-versa). At the end of his performance the great artist shakes off his daimon, gives up his instrument and wearily resumes his place in the human comedy.
Giorgio de Chirico
Palazzo Reale, Milan, Italy, 25 September – 19 January, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October, 2019