Beyond what we see, we find ourselves face to face with the enigmatic artistic journey of one of the greatest talents of the 20th century
In Milan at Palazzo Reale (September 25th – January 19th, 2020) a retrospective exhibit on Giorgio De Chirico will be open to the public, offering about 120 works that analyse his entire career, and not only the metaphysical period for which he is famous around the globe.
He called himself a great painter. Indeed, he said he was the greatest of all time, and despite not having a degree, he was a man with a profound culture and extremely well-read. At the turn of the 20th century, he first appeared on the art scene, while the Avant-gardes were revolutionizing art by unhinging tradition. De Chirico, after an initial contact with these circles, soon moved away to follow a personal path, reconnecting to the great Italian painting of which he considers himself the last represented: “pictor classicus sum“. He spent a great deal of energy also on the recovery of the pictorial techniques of tradition, opposing that “… decadent [painting] that had started with Impressionism“.
Starting with his first teacher, Maruvidis, he had learnt the love for clean lines and definite shapes, which will remain a constant aspect in his painting. On this basis, he developed a personal style that reached maturity in 1918: Metaphysical Art. This style was also the result of the spirit of the times, the need for certainties that affected European culture after the moral and material devastation of World War I: the imperative was a “Return to order”.
The need for security is translated with De Chirico’s paintings into simple volumes inserted into ordered spaces. The references are to the Italian painting of Giotto or Masaccio, however looked at with “the mind of a philosopher”. In his autobiography, he writes of his desire to recreate the feeling he had felt when reading Nietzsche, that is, the subtle melancholy of sunny afternoons in Italian cities. Consequently, he painted simple and concrete volumes, yet which were made restless by long shadows of the late afternoon.
In his paintings, representation is realistic, despite being crossed with mystery, as if there was something more that went beyond reality. Metaphysical Art is therefore an enigma, a doubt, a secret to be revealed and awaited. The term alludes to a dimension (from the Greek word metà) that goes beyond the physical reality we perceive.
De Chirico found it necessary to become estranged from reality so that ordinary objects appear to us in a new light, revealing their true essence. Therefore, he stages urban landscapes and everyday objects meticulously reproduced almost as an illustration, but places them out of their usual context, showing new meanings that displace and arouse uneasiness in those who observe them.
The artists himself compares his paintings to the apparently calm ocean on the surface, but which frightens us with “all the unknown that is hidden in the depths”. In this universe, mankind is generally absent. When present, it is reduced to a secondary element on a reduced scale compared to architecture. Sometimes people are only alluded to, like in dressmaker’s dummies that are often found in his paintings.
The incongruity between the banality of the objects and their contextualization is intensified by the titles that add mystery, like The Song of Love, where they share an urban area with a tennis ball, a rubber glove and the head of a classical statue. This was an anti-revolution in defence of the great past painting against the abuses perpetrated by the new generations, “…the nonsense of the so-called modernists” as he called them, who had corrupted the form and the “beautiful painting” [la bella pittura] in the name of a supposed spirituality that was actually the fruit of venality and lust for success.
De Chirico was a rather lone voice in artistic circles, but he had a very strong impact in the European art scene. The surrealist Magritte, observing The Song of Love, said he saw “thought” for the first time. Moreover, his biography was that of a man who had left the herd. He was born and raised in Greece, where his father had worked as a railway engineer. His training took place between Athens, Munich and Paris, but Greece always had a special place in his heart.
This was highlighted by the numerous classical references seen in his work, which increased in the later part of his career, when the compositions became more complex, and where mannequins disappear and human figures are seen more. De Chirico, in a world that has turned its back on tradition, had the courage to go against the tide and remain true to himself. At time when everyone was leaving traditional techniques behind, he renewed them. He is an admirable example of coherence, reminding us that mystery lies in every aspect of our daily lives.
Anna Maria Calabretta