Giorgio de Chirico at the Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris


Giorgio de Chirico at the Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris

Beverly Held, Ph.D. aka ‘Dr. B.’

Figure 1. Figure 1. Giorgio de Chirico, La Peinture Métaphysique. Exhibition Poster, 2020

Nietzsche and Apollinaire, Ariadne and the Centaur, Metaphysics and Surrealism. How many times does one artist, one we eventually determine to be a rather disagreeable fellow, take us in all these directions, and only for a series of paintings produced during the second decade of the 20th century, from 1909 - 1919.

Wait, before you go … I am here to praise Giorgio de Chirico, not to bury him. So, let’s see what we have.  Biography please, maestro. Giorgio (can we call him Giorgio?) was born in 1888 in the Greek town of Volos to Italian parents. Volos was the port from which Jason and the Argonauts set sail to find the Golden Fleece (note to self maybe Greek statues in Giorgio’s paintings relate to his place of birth). Why there? His father was an engineer managing the construction of a railroad (second note to self, maybe this is why trains will appear in the background of Giorgio’s paintings). Giorgio began studying drawing and painting at Athens Polytechnic when he was 12. When Giorgio’s father died in 1905, the family moved to Munich and Giorgio continued his studies. From Munich, he traveled to Italy, first Milan, then Florence and finally Turin. Why Turin ? Well, by then, not being your typical right brained artist, he had begun studying philosophy, especially the work of Frederich Nietzsche. Indeed, Giorgio insisted that he was the only man who truly understood Nietzsche. (Who’s to argue?) So, Giorgio, like Nietzsche, before him, wandered the streets and piazzas of Turin. In 1911, Giorgio moved to Paris and his career took off. For nearly ten years, in Paris before the war, in Ferrara during the war and in Rome afterwards, the man was on a roll 

But what about Metaphysical Art? Giorgio discussed it in a 1919 tract entitled ‘We Metaphysicians.’ Art, we learn, was liberated by modern philosophers and poets. Nietzsche explained the profound non-sense of life and how such nonsense can be transmuted into art. While Giorgio does credit Cubism and Futurism with producing images that play with nonsense, he faults them for maintaining an element of meaning in their work.  Giorgio concedes that it is no easy task to explain Metaphysical Art, which “…surpasses anything as yet attempted in the human arts” (whoa Giorgio, get a grip). 

Giorgio further contends that “genius can only be judged by genius.” So, I guess if you don’t get metaphysics in art, it is because you just are not smart enough to get it.  Apparently there were a lot of people who weren’t smart enough in Paris back in the day. Giorgio calls them “the pseudo-intellectuals of the banks of the Seine.” Despite the detractors, there were defenders like Apollinaire, who called Giorgio “the most surprising painter of the young generation”. Giorgio couldn’t understand why so many people, even “the most right-minded people,” were disturbed by the idea of metaphysics in art. “No one before me has ever tried to accomplish in art what I have attempted. My work marks an extraordinary stage in the progressive elaboration and the complicated inner-workings of the human arts. (if you say so) .

So, that’s Giorgio on Giorgio. According to the scholar, Maurizio Calvesi, “The nonsense of which De Chirico speaks is an enigma without the possibility of solution.” The aim of Giorgio’s metaphysical paintings, according to Calvesi is to tear the signifier apart from the signified. To refresh your memories, what we are talking about here is signs and symbols and interpretation. Signs are made up of the signifier which refers to what can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted (our five senses). The signified is the mental concept, aka the meaning we can derive from signifiers. But with metaphysical painting, we are not supposed to be able to make those connections. “The exclusion of subject and meaning is a major motif in De Chirico’s metaphysical painting theory.” This does not mean that we cannot identify the objects in Giorgio's metaphysical paintings.  We can and easily, there are statues, and arches, and trains but Giorgio wants us to believe that the combinations cannot be understood, that they must be accepted as enigmas. It all sounds very Winston Churchill to me, when he declared in his 1939 BBC broadcast that Russia was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” Self interest motivated Russia, Giorgio was probably motivated by the same. But let’s stop this word play and play with paintings instead.

One of the first paintings in the exhibition is Dying Centaur from 1909. (Figure 2) The description of the painting, in the museum’s online catalogue is only about Giorgio’s technique, the “scraping (of) parts of the canvas with the back of the paintbrush exactly mimic the technique of etching”. But what does it mean? Oops, not supposed to ask for meaning here but there is a title and that is a centaur and he seems to be dying. 

Figure 2. Dying Centaur, Giorgio de Chirico, 1909

The painting reminds me of a sculpture executed a scant 5 years later, in 1914, by none other than our friend, the sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle, (Figure 3) about whom we have already spoken. As I am sure most of you remember, a centaur is a creature with the head and torso of a man and the lower body of a horse. So that makes four horse legs, two human arms, full body of a horse until just before the neck which morphs into the torso and head of a human. Hmmm, from the head to just below the waist human, full body of horse - so two stomachs but only one set of genitalia, I guess that was best. 

Figure 3. Dying Centaur or Death of the Last Centaur. Antoine Bourdelle, 1914

Bourdelle’s sculpture is either identified as the Dying Centaur or Death of the Last Centaur. So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that both depict the same last Centaur, Chiron. I am more than a little obsessed with Chiron. It started in 2004, when my son was 10, and we saw the film ‘Troy’. He became obsessed with it (obsessions tend to run in families). We went to the library every day after school to read age appropriate books about Odysseus, Achilles and the Trojan War. I decided to homeschool him. We moved on to different subjects, but we never lost our enthusiasm for Homer’s epic (how could we?). Eight years after the film, I was perusing the new books shelves (adult books this time) at our public library (San Francisco) and came upon a book by Madeline Miller called The Song of Achilles (which I urge you to read). Although most of the story is about Achilles’ (erotic) relationship with Patroclus, I was most struck by Achilles’ relationship with Chiron, the most important centaur in Greek mythology. While centaurs, like satyrs, are usually rowdy, rough-edged frat boys always getting drunk and causing havoc, Chiron was different. He was an educator and he was especially good with boys (yes, Dennis Hastert comes to mind). He taught them the skills they needed to become men. One of Chiron’s most famous pupils was Achilles whose father entrusted the boy to Chiron to be nurtured, to be taught.The nature of their relationship, the respect that Achilles had for Chiron and the loving kindness Chiron showed his young charge, was movingly depicted in the book. 

But what about his death, I hear you asking. Well, he was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accidentally struck by a poisoned arrow shot from Heracles’ (Hercules) bow. Giorgio shows a fallen centaur, his white human arms akimbo, his dark horse legs splayed, his white human back against the hard ground, his dark, bearded face lying at a jutting angle. Bourdelle, too, shows the moment of Chiron’s death, his body contorted with pain, his hind legs caving under his heavy body. His human head resting on his horse shoulder.

In 1910, Giorgio painted Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, (Figure 4) a way station on his way to Metaphysics. We have a nearly empty Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was here that Giorgio claimed to have a moment of clarity where the world appeared as if for the first time. There are few better places to have a moment of clarity than Florence, Giorgio wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. In the painting, two diminutive humans, facing out, dressed in long robes, make a rare appearance. The figure in blue stares straight ahead, his companion, in purple, has one arm around his shoulder and holds her head in her other hand. A towering statue casting a long shadow, has its back towards us (how rude!), headless yet seemingly looking off to the right. The statue is a Roman copy after a Greek original. How do I know this ? Well because Greek statues are hollowed bronze (Figure 5) and Roman copies are marble (Figure 6). Marble being heavier than hollowed bronze, Roman sculptors had to include something against which the statue could lean, like a tree trunk, as here, to distribute the weight and save the knees from buckling. Oddly, or not, this is a metaphysical painting, the tree trunk isn’t fulfilling its function since the statue doesn’t lean against it. The scene is more stage set than cityscape, with the openings of the church covered by drapery. In the distance, a ship’s sail making no sense (aka nonsense) makes an appearance. In later works, the Florentine piazza will be replaced by the arcades of Turin, the human figures will disappear and the sailing ship will be joined by a train. This painting is his first canvas in which the title includes the word “enigma.'

Figure 4. Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, Giorgio de Chirico, 1910

Figure 5. Greek Bronze Statues


Figure 6. Roman Apollo Belvedere

One of my favorite paintings, called The Soothsayers Recompense (Figure 7) is from 1913, the first of many on the same theme. In the middle foreground, on the left, bathed in both shadow and light and lying on a block of marble, or maybe a book, is the sleeping Ariadne. How do we know she is sleeping and not dead and how do we know she is Ariadne? The ancients devised a short hand way to distinguish sleep and death in statues. If the figure’s arm is up and over the head, the statue is sleeping, easy as that. And how do we know it is Ariadne, well, Giorgio’s version and countless others since the Renaissance, are based upon the same classical statue. (Figure 8) Behind Ariadne, in deep shadow are the arches of Turin.  In the distant background is a steam train, clouds of smoke billowing from the engine, a reference to his engineer father. A single open arch on the right side allows us to glimpse at two swaying palm trees. 

Figure 7. The Soothsayers Recompense, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

Figure 8. Antique reclining statue of Ariadne

Everyone knows who Ariadne was, right ? The daughter of Minos, the half sister of the Minotaur who every seven (maybe 9) years devoured Athenian youths and maidens. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, one of that year’s youths to be sacrificed. She betrayed her father and her country by giving Theseus a sword to slay the Minotaur and a golden string to find his way back through the labyrinth after the deed was done. Ariadne begged Theseus to take her with him when he fled Crete. He did, but only as far as Naxos. Titian’s painting show the three scenes, (Figure 9) Theseus, in left background, flees the island on a boat. Ariadne awakens to find she has been abandoned. To save the day, Dionysus (Bacchus) and his band arrive to rescue her. From abandoned princess to married goddess, not bad. 

Figure 9. Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1520

What did Ariadne mean to Giorgio? She was special to him because she was special to Giorgio’s hero, Nietzsche. Nietzsche called the woman he loved, Cosima Wagner, the wife of the composer, his Ariadne. Among the last coherent or near-coherent letters that Nietzsche wrote were those to Cosima Wagner, by then the widow of the composer, in which Nietzsche addressed her as ''Princess Ariadne’' and signed the letters, Dionysus. And why Turin? Once again, the answer is Nietzsche, it is the city in which an increasingly insane Nietzsche wandered and in which Giorgio claimed to have undergone a genuine revelation while studying Nietzsche’s theories. Interesting that Nietzsche chose Ariadne as his beloved, a woman defiled and deserted. I would have gone for Daphne, who ran swiftly enough to escape Apollo and aided by her father, a river god, was transformed into a laurel tree. (Figure 10) Because of the girl who got away, Apollo is always shown wearing a laurel wreath. As I say, I would have gone for the woman who got away, rather than the one who was damaged goods.


Figure 10. Apollo and Daphne, Bernini, 1622

The year that Giorgio painted the Soothsayers Recompense, the poet Apollinaire discovered him and introduced him to Paul Guillaume, who became his art dealer. Just an FYI here, the Orangerie holds the Guillaume collection of early modern painting which you really must see (or see again) when you are back in Paris. 

That same year, Giorgio painted the first of his Red Tower paintings. (Figure11) We see a crenelated tower with little houses tucked around it. On the right are the arcades of Turin and directly behind, an equestrian statue. The horse and his rider cast a very long shadow while the tower itself is bathed in light. We are told that “the motif of the tower recalls the reflections of Nietzsche on the complementarity of masculine and feminine. It is the counterpart of the feminine as exemplified by Ariadne.” Let’s compare it to a painting we discussed some months ago now, well before the idea of quarantine was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. It is a series of paintings of mills and lighthouses by Mondrian, from 1908-1914, nearly the same time period, before Mondrian went full on abstract.  (Figure 12)

Figure 11. Red Tower, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

Figure 12. Red Mill at Domburg, Mondrian, 1911

One of my favorite paintings, Target Man (Figure 13) is from 1914. The painting is of  a very cool dude wearing sunglasses. Hovering above him, at the window, against a creepy green background, is the profile, in shadow of a man, high forehead, craggy brow, sharp nose, pointy chin. It is Apollinaire. On his forehead, a white circle. To the side, is a tray with a fish and a shell. To me they look like molds, one for a creamy fish dish, the other for (Proust’s) madeleines. But we learn that the fish and conch shell are attributes of the poet-philosopher, Orpheus (attributes-identifying objects). The dark glasses symbolize blindness, which the Greeks connected with wisdom and poetry. In 1916, Apollinaire was sent to the front and received a shrapnel wound exactly where the painter had drawn the target. Giorgio had foreseen the future; he had anticipated the poet’s fate.  Target man became the Premonitory portrait of  Guillaume Apollinaire.

Figure 13. Target Man (Premonitory portrait of  Guillaume Apollinaire) Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Another very cool painting from 1914 is The Child's Brain. (Figure 14) It was a favorite of Surrealism's founder André Breton, who saw it hanging in Paul Guillaume’s gallery as he was riding past on a bus. He got off the bus, walked into the gallery and bought the painting.  Breton said that Giorgio told him that the man was his father and the bookmark in the book on the table symbolized his parents' lovemaking, a scene which maybe Giorgio stumbled upon when he was a child (just so you know, bookmark = penis, so I guess book = vagina). Giorgio wanted his paintings to be metaphysical nonsense but people have had lots of fun trying to interpret this painting. To one, the half naked man, whether a portrait of Giorgio’s father or not, “is meant as a portrait of the young, sexually ambivalent and virile Dionysus.”  Breton and his fellow Surrealists interpreted the work through a Freudian lens, the man with his pelvic area covered by a book is an interpretation of Freud’s psychosexual stages, particularly the phallic stage when a young man, obsessed with his genitals, begins to realize gender differences and fears castration. A year after this painting was shown, Picasso painted The Man in the Bowler Hat, seated in an Armchair (Figure 15) and a decade later, Max Ernst painted a mustachioed figure in  Piétà or Revolution by Night, (Figure 16) both clear homages to Child’s Brain.

Figure 14. Child’s Brain, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Figure 15. Man in a Bowler Hat, Picasso, 1915

Figure 16. Piétà or Revolution by Night, Max Ernst, 1924

In 1915 de Chirico was conscripted into the Italian army and stationed in Ferrara, Italy. In paintings of this period, like La Révélation du Solitaire (1916), (Figure 17) colors are brighter and dressmakers’ mannequins, compasses, Ferrara biscuits, begin to appear.  In the spring of 1917, Giorgio was diagnosed with a nervous condition and admitted into a military hospital where he met Carlo Carrà. They painted together and launched their metaphysical school of painting. In Giorgio’s paintings from this period, the furniture and instruments in the treatment rooms make their appearance: prostheses, chairs for electro-shock treatment, technical and educational equipment for rehabilitation, with mannequins filling in for the wounded and maimed.

Figure 17. La Révélation du Solitaire Giorgio de Chirico, 1916

The Metaphysical school proved short-lived; it ended around 1920 when Giorgio and Carrà fought over who had founded it. By then, Breton had caught Giorgio copying his own paintings. He denounced Giorgio as a fake and self-forger. When you consider that Giorgio back-dated some paintings, it is hard to disagree. Although he offered excuses, the most obvious reason was that those early paintings were prized and he could sell them. There were lots of versions of Ariadne over the years. (Figure 18) Warhol found inspiration in Giorgio’s later Ariadne paintings and silkscreened his own four-panel version in 1982.(Figure 19) In 1924, Giorgio visited Paris and met with a group of surrealist artists who celebrated his work from the teens but condemned his later work. Giorgio called them 'cretinous and hostile.” And that’s Giorgio de Chirico ! (Figures 20 & 21

Figure 18. Ariadne, Giorgio de Chirico, 1952

Figure 19. Italian Square with Ariadne, Andy Warhol, 1982

Figure 20. Self portrait, Classical portrait bust &Renaissance painting, Giorgio de Chirico, 1922

Figure 21. Portrait of Giorgio de Chirico by Man Ray, 1934

1 comment

Julia Frey October 6, 2020

Thanks for all the analysis of the art in this review. It was fascinating. Thought I have to admit that I nearly gave up after paragraphs 3 & 4 of this article (trying to understand di Chirico's "Metaphysical Art" garble was exhausting, and hopeless anyway), but I tuned back in as soon as Dr. B. got to the images and visual comparisons. I've seen some of di Chirico's later work (not discussed in Dr. B's review) and found that stuff a total bore. Whereas the "surrealist" works, no matter what G. di C. wrote about them, are great -- interesting because intriguing, and Dr. B's examples of the cross influences (both before and after G. di C.) are extemely illuminating. One quibble, the mold for "Proust's madeleine" represents a scallop shell. To see what a conch looks like click here: Keep the great reviews coming. They're away interesting.

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