What can an empty town square tell us about the human condition? Giorgio de Chirico considered that question with his mysterious works produced between 1911 and 1917. They were unlike anything else being made in Europe at the time, resembling nothing like the haughty abstractions then being produced by Cubists in Paris or the colorful experiments with motion being made by the Futurists in Italy.
De Chirico’s work from this era was termed “Metaphysical Painting” by the French poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and it would become fundamental to the development of Surrealism for the way his enigmatic scenes seemed less concerned with presenting any kind of reality than they were with offering up dreamlike scenarios that were at once disorienting and confounding, sinister and sly, heartbreaking and solitary.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Italy, which manages the Cerruti Collection, which houses 10 important works by de Chirico, told ARTnews, “De Chirico’s radicalism was to make the first painting that was not a figurative representation of reality but a representation of how the mind sees reality—he created a kind of meta-figurative painting, showing how the mind looks at the world from a distance.”
Below, a guide to the artist Giorgio de Chirico.
How He Arrived at His Signature Style
It took a while before de Chirico began painting his signature images of empty plazas. He was born in Greece in 1888 to Italian parents and he and his family moved around at various points in his life. He studied painting in Athens and Munich and was living in Florence by 1910. While sitting on a bench in the Piazza Santa Croce, facing a Gothic church and a statue of Dante, he had a breakthrough. Upon being there, the artist later wrote, “I had the strange impression that I was looking at these things for the first time, and the composition of the painting revealed itself to my mind’s eye. Now every time I look at this picture, I see that moment once again. Nevertheless, the moment is an enigma for me, in that it is inexplicable. I like also to call the work derived from it an enigma.”
In a catalogue essay for a de Chirico retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982, critic Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco interpreted the artist’s awakening as a realization that his psychological state was at odds with his surroundings. “Herein lies the whole meaning of Metaphysical art: to see something and go beyond it,” dell’Arco wrote.
Around this time de Chirico began reading the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings would prove hugely influential, and then in 1911 he moved to Paris, where his brother Andrea (who would soon change his name to Alberto Savinio) was already living. At the time, de Chirico was still recovering from an intestinal illness, and he had painted little since his revelation. But he submitted the works he made in Italy in 1910, most notably The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, at the Salon d’Automne in 1912, where he received acclaim. Shortly afterward, he returned to his art and some months later hosted an exhibition of 30 of his paintings in his studio. Apollinaire reviewed that show, propelling de Chirico to fame. “The art of this young painter is an inner and cerebral one that has nothing in common with the art of the painters who have emerged in recent years,” Apollinaire wrote. “It possesses nothing of Matisse, nor of Picasso, it does not come from the Impressionists. This originality is new enough to deserve to be pointed out. Monsieur de Chirico’s very sharp and very modern perceptions generally assume an architectural form.”
De Chirico’s Paris period, which lasted from 1911 until 1915, has been considered the most fruitful part of his career. He often painted town squares in a melancholic shade of yellow; his plazas are typically empty, save for small figures with long shadows or infinite rows of arcades punctuated by statues or faceless mannequins, which might be a tribute to the modernist sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. A large pink rubber glove is also a recurring motif in his art, as are towers, chimneys, architectural arcades, clocks, fragments of marble sculptures, paintings within the painting, and long shadows that don’t seem to match the time of day.
One Italian critic of the early 20th century, Ardengo Soffici, wrote in 1914, “The painting of de Chirico is not painting, in the sense that we use that word today. It could be defined as a writing down of dreams. … [H]e truly succeeds in expressing that sensation of vastness, of solitude, of immobility, of stasis which certain sights reflected by the state of memory sometimes produce in our mind, just at the point of sleep.”
These strange juxtapositions are foreboding—and today perhaps even prescient of numerous cities under lockdown. Christov-Bakargiev said, “When we walk in Turin today, it is as if we are walking inside a de Chirico. What is a city without people, what is the point of an empty piazza?”
Sources of Influence and Metaphysical Painting
Shortly after World War I began, de Chirico left Paris in 1915 and was stationed in Ferrara, Italy, where he continued to be enormously prolific. Around 1917, he formally founded the scuola metafisica, or Metaphysical School, with fellow Italian painter Carlo Carrà, whose own work was hugely indebted to what de Chirico had already created in the earlier years of the decade. The Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, whose own paintings are also similarly disorienting in terms of their locations and grouping of objects, was a significant influence on the school; de Chirico is known to have first encountered his works while studying in Munich.
De Chirico also drew inspiration from Nietzsche. Of reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a seminal philosophical text, de Chirico wrote, “To be truly immortal a work of art must go completely beyond the limits of the human: logic and common sense will have to be completely absent. In this way it will approach the dream state and mental attitude of a child.”
Another influence, which de Chirico came to via Nietzsche’s writings, was Greek mythology. Ariadne, a Cretan princess who is said to have given Theseus the thread that would help guide him out of the labyrinth after he defeated the Minotaur, appears in at least seven of his paintings as a statue in a public square. In his MoMA essay, dell’Arco writes, “In Nietzsche this myth is connected with the spirit of knowledge and thus with the enigma.” After de Chirico painted Ariadne, many other Surrealists followed suit.
Classicism and Influence on Surrealists
Between 1919 and the early 1980s, many scholars worked under the assumption that de Chirico drew greater inspiration from antiquities and Renaissance art than he did from his colleagues. De Chirico wrote as much in his letters—but it’s possible he was potentially playing a game with the hope of making his art more enigmatic. (De Chirico was known to perpetuate lies about his life and work: for the 1912 Paris salon exhibition, rather than putting down Greece as his place of birth, he listed Florence as a tribute to his time in the city.)
The MoMA retrospective proved to be key in overturning the assumption that de Chirico was reverent toward classicism. William Rubin, who curated the MoMA retrospective in 1982, interpreted de Chirico’s art as “far more a critique of classicism than a celebration of it…. By subverting classicism, by turning it inside out, he communicates the singular malaise of modern life.” And, in fact, de Chirico’s art often includes dizzying perspectival shifts that, rather than provide an illusionistic view of a cityscape, tilt and distort the Greco-Roman architecture, making it somewhat sinister, and provocative. Scholar Laura Rosenstock once wrote, “These devices give rise to a pervasive sense of dislocation and anxiety.”
De Chirico was not a Surrealist, but his influence on that movement is so vast that he has been considered—or confused as—a tangential member. Critic André Breton, who penned the movement’s 1924 manifesto, later picked de Chirico’s work The Dream of Tobias to serve as Surrealism’s emblem. It appears in the background of a portrait of the Surrealists. (Today, the painting is among the most expensive works by de Chirico ever sold at auction, fetching $9.2 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2017.)
The relationship between the Surrealists and their so-called godfather, de Chirico, however, was short lived. They would break off their contact with him by 1925 and disparage his work produced after 1917. De Chircio died in 1978 and he continued painting throughout his life. Starting in the 1940s, he would also create work in his signature style and backdate it as a way to confuse collectors, which some say, with its questions of authorship, would prove influential on the Pictures Generation. But many artists, critics, and curators have fallen in line with the Surrealists, viewing his later canvases as being less important.