Art Criticism

Visiting De Chirico’s home

de Chirico Le Muse Inquietanti 1974
Le Muse Inquietanti, 1974

It was the week after Easter in Rome and the sun was out. The Spanish steps were heaving with tourists and ice cream sellers. Algerian immigrants hawked cheap leather goods. For most the steps simply provided a place to rest; as one ample lady from Texas put it: “ok, so I’ve seen them now, is that it?” Clearly she wasn’t impressed. Relaxing with their maps and bottles of water wondering what to do next few seemed to realise that just yards away from where they were sitting the 26 year old Keats had died a horrible death from tuberculosis (the wonderful museum was practically empty when we visited) let alone that one of the 20th century’s most puzzling artists, Giorgio de Chirico had lived over the road.

The Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation was founded in 1986 by Isabella Far de Chirico, the painter’s widow, who in 1987 donated 24 of her husband’s works to the Italian state. Upon her death, in November 1990, the Foundation inherited the painter’s apartment in the Piazza di Spagna – the 17th century Palazzetto dei Borgognoni – where he had lived and worked until his death in 1978. In November 1998 it opened as a museum filled with his late paintings, drawings, sculpture and lithographs, along with manuscripts and photographs.

It is a strange place,a haven of quiet above the crowded street below. I had expected something rather more bohemian from this ‘metaphysical’ painter, but found, instead, an airy bourgeois apartment full of antique furniture, comfortable sofas and rugs. Not what I had predicted from this one time friend of Apollinaire, Picasso, and that arch surrealist André Breton, who had hailed de Chirico’s early dream-like cityscapes as pivotal within the development of Surrealism. Most odd was the tiny monk-like bedroom, Spartan in its decor except for a few books, with its narrow childlike bed under a white cover, where the ‘maestro’ slept across the hall from his Polish second wife, the intellectually and emotionally powerful, Isabella Pakszxwer, whose rather large double bed sported a flamboyant red counterpane.

de Chirico Orfeo Trovatore Stanco 1970
Orfeo Trovatore Stanco, 1970

The enthusiastically hailed period – the pittura metafisica – on which de Chirico’s reputation is based, lasted until around 1918. Then his work changed. Why? The official version is that he was paying homage to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, pitting himself against the greats of art history by going to Florence and studying techniques of tempera and panel painting. As Robert Hughes wrote rather pithily, “he imaged himself to be the heir of Titian”.1 Denounced by the French avant-garde de Chirico counter-attacked with diatribes on modernist degeneracy signing his work Pictor Optimus (the best painter.) But why should an artist who had written: “It is necessary to discover the demon in all things…to discover the eye in all things – We are explorers ready for new departures,” turn his back on contemporary aesthetic discourses in favour of producing second rate paintings that would not, if it weren’t for the significance of his early work, get a look in within the annals of art history?

It was as if de Chirico was running away. But from what? Had he, simply dried up or lost inspiration? Did he genuinely believe in what he was doing when he pastiched and copied his own earlier Metaphysical paintings, signing them with false dates? Was it financial greed? He knew that there was a market for these self-forgeries and that his rare early works fetched many times the price of his later ones. Or was it, as his defenders would have us to believe, that he was playing some kind of early postmodern game with issues of authenticity? Robert Hughes tells the tale of how Italian art dealers used to claim that the Maestro’s bed was so far off the ground in order to accommodate all the ‘early work’ that he ‘discovered’ beneath it. What was the role of his wife in all this? His apartment speaks of convention rather than bohemian radicalism. Was he really searching for approval from the establishment? Whatever his motive Breton referred to him as a “lost genius” and he was expelled from the surrealist circle in 1926.

de Chirico Autoritratto nel parco 1959
Autoritratto nel parco, 1959

Guiseppe Maria Alberto Giorgio de Chirico was born on 10thJuly 1881, in Volosos, Thessaly, a seaside town, where legend has it, the Argonauts ship set sail. His Italian father, Evaristo de Chirico, worked as an engineer building the Thessaly railway. His mother, Gemma Cervetto, came from a noble Genoese family. In 1900 Giorgio, as he was known, did his first painting of lemons and was registered, in order to fulfil his obvious vocation for art, at the Athens Polytechnic. After the premature death of his father, at the age of 62, the family moved to Munich and he attended the Academy of Fine Arts where, along with his brother Andrea (who was later to paint under the pseudonym Alberto Savinio) he cultivated an interest in music. Fascinated by the neoclassical city he spent a good deal of time in its museums studying the work of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger were among his favoured reading material. So what made him step from the vanguard into the relative safety and order of classism, leaving, as Robert Hughes claims: “Picasso and the rest behind in their “primitive” darkness and wilful modernist regression”? 2

Loss affects people differently. For some it makes them strike out, become rebels and do what they would never have dared to do previously. For others it makes them play safe, constantly guarding against life’s random disappointments. The loss of his father dominates de Chirico’s early work. Trains, stations, towers and cannons in frozen landscapes all pay testament to the absent father. They are not so much about nostalgia as about fixing time, forcing it to remain still. In La stazione di Montparnasse 1914 a phallic cannon, topped by two stone balls, points at a pair of desolate, unmistakably breast-like artichokes. In the background of this industrial dreamscape is a large clock. The scene is frozen, timeless in that it belongs to no time, as well as being outside the normal experiences of daily measurable time. Auden’s famous eulogistic lines spring to mind3:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message. He Is Dead.

I accept that it is speculation, but it is speculation suggested by the paintings themselves that de Chirco never got over the trauma of his father’s death. Perhaps he reached the point when he had had his fill of Freudian dreamlike introspection, of probing his psychic hurt in ossified, inert landscapes. The death of his father had been his main theme and it is possible that he took to Classicism, through the iconography of Greco-Roman archaeology and the Renaissance, with its emphasis on form, as a way of embracing the outer physical world rather than remaining trapped within a landscape of oedipal anger and grief. There is the sense in his early paintings of the boy in search of his father. Later he would give himself up to a marriage with a woman whom he painted obsessively. The Foundation is full of images of Isobella in the style of Renoir, Ingres and Titian. In a 1940 portrait she is glamorously attired in a leopard-skin coat and matching pill box hat like something from the pages of Vogue rather than the studio of a radical artist. Did de Chirico paint her like this because this was how she wanted to be seen? He said that “her intuition with issues of painting is always precious to me. There is nobody like her who succeeds in immediately judging both the quality and defects of a painting upon first sight.” Just how much influence did she have over his change of style? Not only was she his wife and companion until his death but she was also his manager and became the ‘voice’ through which de Chirico spoke to the outside world, even signing essays that he himself had written.

Ritratto di Isa, vestito rosa e nero, 1934
Ritratto di Isa, vestito rosa e nero, 1934

There is something deeply inward looking about de Chirico’s late work, as if he had turned away from the modern world, as if safety and comfort might be found within antiquity and history. In Anthony White’s essay4 White discusses Keala Jewell’s book The Art of Enigma: The Chirico Brothers and the Politics of the Modernand the theory that the de Chirico’s “qualities of multiplicity, ambiguity and mixedness” might be interpreted as “an attack on idealist concepts of unity and purity.” He argues that although “the brothers’ hostility to unity and purity can be interpreted as an aversion to fascist politics, the de Chiricos were not simply interested in destroying values; they had strong ideas of the Italian nation which they promoted in their work.” This is slippery ground leading White to argue “the peculiar strangeness and alienation at the heart of the Metaphysical project took the de Chirico brothers into terrain that was amenable to the ideologies of cultural legitimation and anti-Semitism favoured by European fascism.” The landscapes and architectural terrains favoured by de Chirico – alongside his bananas, horses and windows – are almost exclusively Italian; the piazza, the classical fragment, the tower. Italy is seen as a dreamscape, a place of cultural privilege, a space that accorded with contemporary ideas of utopian nationalism. Robert Hughes is quite right when he talks of de Chirico’s work as being “morbid, introspective and peevish.” The city is his therapist’s couch; it is here that he works out his feelings of alienation, of abandonment and death. No wonder he could not bear to inhabit this dreamscape for too long. No wonder he preferred to paint mediocre self-portraits of himself as a Renaissance noble or undemanding bowls of flowers that made a passing nod to Chardin.

Fiori 1960-1968
Fiori 1960-68

De Chirico’s late works have divided scholarly opinion. His detractors charge him with retrenchment, conservatism and fraud (though he won’t have been alone, Dali was another great self-forger), while his supporters offer his late works as evidence of a discerning modernist critique, a form of games playing. The trouble is that it is hard to read the works as ironic. They lack humour and take themselves too seriously and are just not self-consciously bad enough. Like a Sunday painter he seems to be trying too hard to ‘get it right’, to justify himself as the Pictor Optimus dressed in that rather silly, pompous red velvet fancy dress. But de Chirico’s self delusion does not make the paintings any less mediocre. Tied onto his easel behind an unfinished canvases in his very tidy studio, with its fascinating array of books and kitsch objects, is an old horseshoe and a good luck horn. Perhaps de Chirico knew that his moment of brilliance had passed and that only luck and a fair wind would restore his former inventiveness. Once hailed as an originator of avant-garde modernism, his later kitsch offerings were defined in the 80s as precursors of postmodernism. Yet despite these attempts to give these works gravitas they remain flat, irrelevant and rather sadly bombastic. In his brilliant early works de Chirico made visible the workings of the unconscious. Dreams according to Freud were the “royal road to the unconscious”. It was when de Chirico left this road to pursue the academic and the formulaic that he lost his way.

1 Giorgio de Chirico. Nothing if Not Critical, Robert Hughes.
2 Ibid.
3 Stop all the Clocks. W.H. Auden
4 Anthony White: Papers of Surrealism. Issue 4 winter 2005

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images Courtesy of Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico

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