The Art of Giorgio de Chirico

The case of Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) suggests there may be hope for some of the worst of today’s avant-gardistes, who are anti-artists, or who are at least anti-painting. Not that de Chirico was among the worst of his day. His most celebrated works are those he did when allied with the avant-garde until about 1920 and including his even earlier so-called “Metaphysical” paintings. One of his works actually did depict, alongside a classical bust, a rubber glove, as scathingly referred to by the late Brian Sewell in a famous BBC interview. That was not, of course, a criticism of de Chirico, but an indictment of the “Conceptual Art” fashion.

De Chirico was a cosmopolitan and widely cultivated man who was at the same time a consummate painter, whose place in the canon of twentieth-century art is not only secure, but was indeed pivotal. Yet, we hear so much less of him than we do of that human loudspeaker Picasso and his acolytes. For many, de Chirico is just one of those remarkable Italian artists who made a big splash in the years around the First World War. His curious and brooding pictures of that period were later to become an obvious influence upon Jeffrey Smart, the Australian artist long a resident in Italy.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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There is much more to know of de Chirico, who lived on, in Paris, briefly in New York and for many later years, in his Palazzetto in central Rome (adjacent to John Keats’s house on the Piazza di Spagna), which is now a museum of de Chirico’s works. His paintings of the post-war decades show a special development of his notion of metaphysical art; he had moved into an interesting neo-Baroque style, which is extremely appealing and involves some supremely powerful images. The latter appear to have been the result of his long sojourn in Rome; but they also hearken back to his personal origins in late-nineteenth-century Greece and refer to Greek mythology.

The reason for de Chirico’s partial eclipse (except as an example in the art history books of pre-First World War “Metaphysical” painting) is now obvious. For he was one of the first and the most notable of the avant-garde to rebel against its strictures and to urge a return to the craftsmanship of painting. He thus incurred the bitter and public wrath of those avant-gardistes who were formerly his friends. It is remarkable that this occurred as early as 1919. Further, it was explicitly signalled by de Chirico: he changed his style and what it is now fashionable to call his “artistic practice”, and he also published his manifesto against Modernism in an article provocatively titled “The Return to Craftsmanship” in the Italian art journal Valori Plastici.

From then on, he was persona non grata in the most progressive circles, derided as a reactionary who had dared to explore and then re-embrace the most important elements of the Classical and Baroque traditions in painting and sculpture.

Even so, de Chirico nevertheless continued, from time to time, to produce many reprises of his earlier metaphysical works. These were by no means merely potboilers or repetitions, but the fact that they sold well furnished de Chirico not only with a handsome income for many decades, but were a constant reminder to art historians and collectors of his just place in the development of European art in modern times. It has been suggested that they amounted to a delicious form of “revenge” by de Chirico upon his detractors, so many of whom had previously been comrades amongst the Surrealists and other avant-gardistes.

One can discern a deep inhering canniness in the many photographs and films taken of de Chirico in his later years. He was a tremendously effective self-publicist; and as well, he perhaps reflected one of the most enduring of all Hellenic traits—an astute finger on the pulse of the market, with its constant ebbs and flows. Here we must recall that the ever-adaptable Hermes was the Greek god of commerce and of messages, equivalent to Rome’s Mercury. And it was not just a “peasant” canniness, for de Chirico was a particularly intelligent and highly cultivated man—a worldly, urbane figure par excellence.

He did not suffer fools lightly, although he remained diplomatic and was in many respects a reserved man, self-reliant and self-contained; again, these are admirable Greek traits. In addition to all of this, he was an accomplished writer.

As Auden wrote, “a shilling life will give you all the facts”. The standard sources record that de Chirico was born in 1888 at Volos in Greece, his mother being a Genoese Greek of Smyrna origins and his father a Sicilian barone of Greek ancestry. The Greek Kyriko family had moved to Palermo from Rhodes in 1523, as part of a migration of some 4000 Greek Catholic families into Sicily and southern Italy. From 1900, young Giorgio attended drawing and painting classes at the Athens Polytechnic under Roilos and Jakobides. In 1906 the family moved via Florence to Germany, where de Chirico entered the Munich Academy of Fine Arts under von Hackl and von Marr. There he also read the writings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, which had a major (if somewhat unlikely) influence upon him, as did the artworks of Bocklin and Klinger. Later, de Chirico would associate the strange atmosphere of his early metaphysical paintings which derived from views of Turin, with Nietzsche’s poetic-romantic comment on the effect of the autumn light in northern Italian cities.

Returning to Italy in 1909, he lived in Milan and Florence. In 1910 in Florence he painted The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and The Enigma of the Oracle, both of which became signal early works. His enigmatic depictions of near-empty piazzas, usually featuring the motif of a Roman arcade, with a minimum of figures and other minor features, served to suggest and evoke tensions and estrangement, by an art blending ordinary objects with mythical ones. De Chirico himself wrote in 1909 of “the host of strange, unknown and solitary things that can be translated into painting … What is required above all is a pronounced sensitivity.” This early comment is perhaps the key to de Chirico. It also seems to relate to the Nietzschean idea of omens, hidden beneath the banal. 

In 1911, de Chirico joined his brother Andrea, also an artist, in Paris where he met the painter Pierre Laprade and the dealer Paul Guillaume. He then exhibited various works at the Salon des Independents and the Salon d’Automne. Importantly, he entered a useful contract with Guillaume.

In 1915 de Chirico returned to Italy, but was rejected as unfit for military service and went into the Military Hospital at Ferrara, where he met Carlo Carra. They formed the so-called “Pittura Metafisica” school, a small but briefly important initiative. By 1918, de Chirico was established in Rome and his works were exhibited widely. It was at this very point that de Chirico executed a virtual volte-face away from the provocative avant-garde by pleading in his 1919 article in Valori Plastici for the return to traditional painting skills, as well as to traditional images and subject matter. Thus and thereafter he became a notably sharp and polemical critic of Modernism; and in his prolific later work he adopted what has been described as a new “Classicising manner” derived from the Old Masters.

Still, when de Chirico went to Paris in 1924, Andre Breton and other Surrealists took him up as someone interesting. But this did not last long, as disputes broke out and by 1926 de Chirico referred to the Surrealists as “cretinous and hostile”.

Those and other like blasts from de Chirico may have been intemperate; but in fact, de Chirico had enjoyed a far superior education to Breton (a failed medical student and provocative atheist) and most of his circle in Paris. Hence, de Chirico had a stronger Classicist base.

De Chirico and his second wife Isabella Far lived in Italy from 1932 and then in the United States from 1936, but returned to live in Rome from 1944. They acquired the house at 31 Piazza di Spagna, which is now a studio museum dedicated to de Chirico’s works under the terms of Isabella’s will. There, de Chirico was in his element—the famous district where artists of all nations had gathered in Rome around the Spanish Steps and Villa Medici area. He once remarked that Rome was the centre of civilisation and that he and his wife lived in what is the centre of Rome and that this represented scope for both eccentricity and its opposite, namely a settled life of anti-eccentricity.

That comment captured de Chirico’s peculiar and particular place in the world of twentieth-century art. In his last four decades, he embraced the wonderful and neo-Baroque style which puzzled and annoyed many of the bien-pensants. This is readily evident in some quite barbed (but politely put) questions as asked by three art critics who interviewed de Chirico under the mediation of Ettore Della Giovanna for Italian Television in 1961, the film of which is luckily extant.

Various photographs and other films, some of them in colour with audio, show de Chirico as a rather superior type of flaneur, his heavy Greek-Italian profile also showing an indomitable spirit and resembling that of General de Gaulle. He frequently attended the opera and concerts in Rome and loved visiting Venice and his true and first homeland, Greece. He somewhat resembled Richard Strauss in his character as a master of his art and a “good European”.

As Strauss’s opera Daphne was partly inspired by Bernini’s sculpture in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, so was de Chirico’s most formative revelation, as recounted by himself, in his encounter with Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, also at the Borghese Gallery, in about 1919 soon after arriving in Rome.

It has been observed that de Chirico’s later neo-Baroque manner was strongly influenced by the paintings of Rubens, Titian, Raphael and Signorelli, and the latter notably also in de Chirico’s “Mannequin” pictures, the forms of which he later adapted into his likewise distinctive sculpture. Another influence was the art of Venice. I have mentioned already his great joy upon his visits there: in one film, he says that no, he does not like riding in a gondola, but that he is “sacrificing” himself to Italian Television in doing so! It is notable that many of de Chirico’s later works, including a remarkable series of self-portraits, some in costume of the sixteenth century or so, and indeed at least one partly nude self-portrait  (reminiscent of Lucian Freud’s likewise) all display de Chirico’s delight in and his debt to those very Venetian colours of Tintoretto and, most fittingly, the elongated and Baroque forms of El Greco. These later works also feature the Greek horses of mythology and history, warriors in armour and plumes, and architecture of Greco-Roman antiquity.

His position after 1919 may be likened, in contemporary times, to such unusual figures as the controversial Norwegian artist of today Odd Nerdrum, who also urges a return to the traditional craftsmanship of painting, and whose works also evoke an ominous, even theatrical, atmosphere. Nerdrum and his school have likewise been disowned by the contemporary art establishment, much as de Chirico was. Any doubt about that is dispelled by a reading of the grudging entry on de Chirico which appeared in the otherwise quite useful McGraw-Hill Encyclopaedia of World Art published in 1960, where Rosenblum slighted him dismissively. That entry feebly asserted that “while these melancholy and arid ‘dreamscapes’ have provoked [predictably] Freudian interpretations, they have also been considered a personal symbolization of the industrial backwardness of Italy, [the] heir to a moribund classical civilization”.  Other general art histories simply classify de Chirico’s works along with Romantic “fantasy” art, a fairly unhelpful category.

Janson had him bracketed with Marc Chagall under the heading of “Nostalgia”. The outspoken Australian art critic Robert Hughes, whilst disapproving of the later works, wrote perceptively in 1982 that de Chirico:

could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association. One can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere. In The Joy of Return 1915, de Chirico’s train has once more entered the city … a bright ball of vapour hovers directly above its smokestack. Perhaps it comes from the train and is near us. Or possibly it is a cloud on the horizon, lit by the sun that never penetrates the buildings, in the last electric blue silence of dusk. It contracts the near and the far, enchanting one’s sense of space. Early de Chiricos are full of such effects. Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est? (“What shall I love if not the enigma?”)—this question, inscribed by the young artist on his self-portrait in 1911, is their subtext.

De Chirico has also been associated by some with the American Edward Hopper’s work, depicting ominous spaces and curious light, in twentieth-century scenes.

De Chirico’s smoking trains, which chuff across some of his “metaphysical” landscapes, have far less to do with mere Modernism, or the worship of speed Marinetti-style as in Futurism, as they reflect a trope ultimately deriving from the fact that the artist’s father was an engineer in charge of railway construction in Greece. De Chirico’s trains on the horizon might thus be likened to those horns and military march themes in the music of Gustav Mahler, which were a frequent harking back to the composer’s childhood experiences of army bands in garrison towns of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which curiously emerge against Mahler’s frequent dissonances and reveries.

Robert Hughes wrote the passage above in the wake of the major exhibition of de Chirico’s works held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York at the time, the catalogue of which was published as De Chirico: Essays by Maurizio Fagioli dell’Arco and Others and edited by William Rubin (1982). In his introduction to it, Rubin made the important points that:

James Thrall Soby and Alfred Barr, during their years at The Museum of Modern Art, focused their collecting and exhibiting interests on de Chirico’s early, pre-1920 painting. They found the artist’s subsequent work both less good and less relevant to modern painting as a whole. In recent years, certain critics have questioned this judgment and have vigorously championed de Chirico’s later work. I find the distinction made by Soby and Barr to be essentially correct, though I have modified their policy to the extent of exhibiting and reproducing a small selection of the later work, primarily from the 1920s.

However, Rubin went on to give this telling assessment: “Giorgio de Chirico’s best painting marks him, I believe, as the greatest Italian painter of this century—indeed, since the eighteenth century.” Most would today agree with this view of de Chirico’s place in the canon of twentieth-century art; and by now, the wider view of him has shifted further away from Rubin’s qualifications about de Chirico as expressed in 1982. He now stands as a truly great painter, not only for his pre-1919 work, but for his later Classicising and neo-Baroque works too.  

As for the influence of Nietzsche during and after de Chirico’s early Munich Academy period, what can one make of that, especially given the critique of Nietzsche by thinkers like Stanley Rosen and others who have written on the seeds of nihilism in the modern world? Despite de Chirico’s assertion to a friend that he was the “only man properly to have understood” Nietzsche’s thought, there is, at least for this writer, little of nihilism as such to be found in de Chirico’s works.  Perhaps it is more Nietzsche’s notion of “Eternal Return” or perhaps also the importance of Greek tragedy and of “Archetypes”, which we may readily see in and through de Chirico’s often very enigmatic pictures. The relation of Nietzsche’s and Schopenhauer’s thought to de Chirico’s works has been considered in detail by Maurizio Fagioli dell’Arco in his 1982 essay “De Chirico in Paris 1911–1915”, which should be read alongside the pieces by Joan Lukach on “De Chirico and Italian Art Theory 1915–1920” and by William Rubin on “De Chirico and Modernism” in the MOMA Exhibition publication. At all events, de Chirico ultimately triumphed over all those Modernists who wanted to relegate him, Soviet-style, to the outcast status of “former person”.

Despite his later vituperative battles with Andre Breton and the Surrealists, none can deny de Chirico’s early influence on Modernism and Surrealism. De Chirico also influenced Giorgio Morandi’s subtle and static paintings. De Chirico’s only late student of note was the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas.

De Chirico was elected to the French Academie des Beaux Arts in 1974. He died in 1978 at the age of ninety, and his tomb monument is in the church of San Francesco a Ripa in Rome. De Chirico, despite his notoriety and mentions in art history, is still an under-rated artist on his own poetic terms, but this is changing. The 1982 MOMA Exhibition came only four years after the artist’s death and was the beginning of a more discerning re-assessment. In 2013, there was a major exhibition of his portrait works in Montepulciano, under the auspices of the Fondazione Giorgio e Isabella de Chirico.

In Australia, our holdings of works by de Chirico in public galleries include the oil La Mort d’un esprit (1916) and other works at the NGA in Canberra, a late figurative Horse Study (1963) at the AGNSW in Sydney and a set of works on paper on various classical themes in the collection of the NGV in Melbourne.

Many Australians will have walked past his home and studio on the opposite side of the Spanish Steps to Babington’s Tearooms; but next time in Rome, consider making a booking to view the Casa Museo de Chirico there.

Dr Douglas Hassall lives in Melbourne. He dedicates this article to the memory of the late Sir Roger Scruton (1944–2020).


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