Sunday, August 7, 2011

From My Lecture on Giorgio de Chirico

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De Chirico reputation has been maligned by critics and historians. I am going to give an overview of his life and the experiences that affected his legacy. In all judgments of de Chirico's decisions I am going to favor de Chirico. When I study painter’s accomplishments, I am interested in everything that they do and think. I am interested in their mistakes. I love them as a whole, not just the parts of their work that is popular. Many critics love the best work, the masterpieces, and disparage the mediocre work. 

His early paintings from 1909 to 1919 were admired by the modern poets and artists. I am going to make some simple points that will set the tone for his life experiences.


The Anguish of Departure  1914


Born in Volos, Greece in 1888, de Chirico’s lineage is grand. His grandfather was a baron and was special advisor to Czar Nicholas I. He was decorated with the Cross of St. Nicholas. He received title of Count of Lef Kokilon (White Shell). De Chirico’s family was among the aristocracy and I think that Giorgio felt an entitlement that put him in a higher class than other modern artists (like Matisse and Picasso) who were born from middle and lower class families. This sets de Chirico apart from many of his contemporary painters and critics. He admired the great masters like Titian. Artists from lower classes tend to want to overthrow the museum art. They see themselves as revolutionary. For example, Miro, who says he wants to “assassinate painting.” Brought up in a high class, de Chirico wanted to preserve the integrity of the upper class and only trusted his kind.

I found evidence that De Chirico was conceited and arrogant. His letters are filled with descriptions of other people as “stupid”. But this brings into question, how we judge an artist. Should we judge only their art, or do we also judge their private selves? Do we let their outward personalities effect how we see their artistic personalities? I see a little conceit and arrogance in de Chirico’s painting. Mostly, in his best work, I see charm, intelligence, poetry and deep mystery.

I’ve read that Delacroix was the last great painter who was an aristocrat; I think de Chirico is actually the last. I am speaking of an artist whose ancestry comes from the era of Kings and Queens.

De Chirico’s father took a career as a railroad engineer and designed the Thessaly railroad.
De Chirico’s younger brother was named Adelaide, and later changed his name to Alberto Savinio. Alberto was a prodigal musician and painter. For the majority of their lives, the brothers were in close contact and shared philosophy, ideas, friendships and lived in the same cities. 

 The ballerina, Raissa Gurievich Krol, de Chirico's first wife



When their father died in 1905, the mother took over the boy’s education and care. De Chirico’s first wife Raissa describes her mother in law:

"She was terrible, a woman of uncommon intelligence and extremely strong personality and character, but I had never known such a terrible woman in my life; with me she tried to control herself, because she had an inferiority complex with regard to my family; she was impressed above all, I think, by the great wealth of my parents, who lived in Paris, and the fact that one of my sisters was a princess; and so she eventually understood that I had no reason whatsoever to interest myself in the economic status of Georges; but oh, how she made poor Maria Savinio suffer!

She had no sense of morality, and in that she was like Georges; all that mattered to her was money; and her children were terrified of her; she continued to slap them about even when they were grown. “Giorgio, come here,” she would say, and Georges would obey without protest. One evening, when she was living with us in Paris, Georges and his mother had a tremendous row. I had never witnessed anything like it before, they said terrible things and even broke a window; you know, being Russian, I was not accustomed to such behavior!"


De Chirico's portrait of his mother 1911

Later, Raissa returned to the house to find Giorgio and his mother enjoying tea.

The boys were fascinated with Greek mythology and it is said, Giorgio thoroughly believed in the Greek legend of Argonauts and imagined it possible for a Centaur to appear at their household door. Giorgio began to explore these themes in his metaphysical paintings and at times in his career, the ancient themes dominated his subject matter.

Between 1906 and 1909 the boys lived and studied in Munich. Giorgio found a path in his imagery from Arnold Bocklin and Max Klinger. Munich is where he saw the arcade facing the Hofgarten. This is used in the first Metaphysical paintings.

De Chirico realized the importance of the enigma to his life experience and painting. An enigma is imagery with hidden or inexplicable meaning. This led to the first metaphysical paintings of 1911 to 1919. 

The Red Tower    1914

De Chirico wrote:

"What is needed above all, is to rid art of all that has been its familiar content until now, all idea, all thought, all symbol must be put aside, to have the courage to give up all the rest.  There is the artist of the furture, someone who renounces something every day, whose personality daily becomes purer and more innocent.  Above all what is needed is confidence in oneself.  The revelation we have of a work of art, the conception of a picture must represent something which has sense in itself, has no subject, which from the point of view of human logic means nothing at all.  I say that such a revelation must be felt so strongly, must give us such joy or such pain, that we are obliged to paint, implelled by a force greater than the force which imples a starving man to bite like a wild beast into a piece of bread he happens to find.  That is what the painging of the future must be."


De Chirico visited Turin, Italy where he was influenced by the architecture. Then he moved to Paris with his brother and mother.

De Chirico and Apollinaire

De Chirico exhibited in the Paris Salon des Independents in 1913. The poet, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote favorable and respectful reviews of de Chirico’s work. The relationship between the two brothers and Apollinaire grew strong. Apollinaire wrote: 

"De Chirico is the most astounding painter of the new generation." 


De Chirico's Portrait of Apollinaire  1914

Other critics thought de Chirico’s work looked like stage design.

In 1914, de Chirico painted a portrait of Apollinaire which includes a silhouette of Apollinaire.  There is a circle target on the back of the head.  This circle turned out to be a prophetic spot on Apollinaire's head.  Durning the First World War, the soldier Apollinaire was injured in the very spot that was targeted in the painting.

Picasso's drawing of Apollinaire with a bandage on his head 

Around this time de Chirico met his first art dealer Paul Guillaume. Savinio wrote: 

"Paul Guillaume was Giorgio de Chirico’s first “dealer. For a monthly stipend of 120 francs, the painter supplied the dealer with 6 paintings per month, thereby establishing the value of each painting of 20 francs. In the years following the Great War, Paul Guillaume sold these same paintings for upwards of 40 to 50,000 francs apiece." 

We know that de Chirico’s mother was obsessed with money, and I think de Chirico desired to be rich. With this description of how artist to dealer relationships worked, we will see how de Chirico soured to the art marketplace. He wanted to cash in on his popularity. I am unable to find the exact value of 20 francs in today’s money. However, we can use the ratio to figure out how much money is discussed. Let’s say 20 francs equals $20, the value of each painting. After the war Guillaume, sold the same painting for $40,000. Guillaume makes a profit of $39,960. I can see how de Chirico could distrust dealers and feel a sense of injustice. 

The Two Masks   1916

In 1914, de Chirico began to use the mannequin as a subject. In 1915-1916 de Chirico was disqualified for army service. He spent the year in Ferrara, Italy.

De Chirico called his paintings, Metaphysical paintings.

"The word metaphysical, with which I baptized my painting when working in Paris during the lean yet fertile pre-war years, has stirred up a significant amount of discord and misunderstanding. The usual lie, which later degenerated into a commonplace, was to say if it; this is literature.

The word metaphysical gives rise to untold misunderstandings, especially in those constipated minds which, not having the healthy power of creation, live on plagiarism and banality and spray their chronic bile upon any passerby who happens to have surpassed their intellectual capacities. In France the confusion extends to the point of attributing the invention of Metaphysics to the Germans, and I remember the battles I had to fight in order to have the terrible term accepted, for it made even the most sensible persons suspicious.

I do not see anything tenebrous in the “metaphysical”; the tranquil and insensate beauty of matter is for me “metaphysical,” and even more metaphysical are those objects whose clarity of color and exactness of measure render them the antipodes of all confusion and vagueness.

The component parts of the works “metaphysica” can lead to another colossal misunderstanding; “metaphysics: from the Greek “beyond the physica”, might lead one to think that the things which exist beyond the physical must constitute a sort of nirvana-like void. It is pure imbecility if we consider that [there is no distance in space, or that] an inexplicable state X could exist outside of a painted, described or imagined object as well as within the object itself (this being precisely what happens in my own art).

That which I have attempted in art has never been attempted before me. My work is an unmistakable signpost in the progressive unfolding, in the complex machinery of the human arts. My art h a frightening cleverness, it returns from beyond unexplored horizons to fix itself in metaphysical eternity, in the terrible solitude of an inexplicable lyricism; a cookie, the corner formed by two walls, a drawing that evokes the nature of the idiotic and insensate world which accompanies us through this tenebrous life.

Veniet felicior aetas -- There will come a happier age"


De Chirico and Surrealism

Around 1920, the poet and critic, Andre Breton saw the metaphysical paintings and determined that they perfectly fit into his definition of Surrealism. De Chirico and Breton met, and de Chirico joined the Surrealists. Breton relabeled de Chirico a Surrealist.

Breton defined Surrealism as,

"pure psychic automatism by whose means it is intended to express verbally, or in writing, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought, dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason and outside of all aesthetic or moral preoccupations."

I think this is close to what de Chirico is trying to express, but not quite exact. De Chirico is interested in a pure thought but a poetic thought that is inspired by the objects and feeling experienced. The main difference being that Breton describes uncontrolled thought and de Chirico describes inspired thought. Thought inspired by enigma.


Ulysses 1922

In the 1920’s, de Chirico became fascinated by the master classic painters like Rafael. He became convinced that the most important secret of the masters was the preparation of the canvas. De Chirico changed from Metaphysical subjects to Classical subject matter. Surrealist writings specifically rejected the influence of history, in order to focus on what is happening in the present.

De Chirico sent this sincere letter to Breton.

"My very dear friend I am very moved by all that you tell me in your good letter. For a long time I worked without hope. Now it’s above all necessary that I clarify one point for you; the point which has to do with my painting of today. I know that in France there are people who say what I am making a museum art, that I have lost my road, etc.

This was fatal and I expected it. But I have an easy conscience and am full of inner joy, for I know that the value of what I am doing will appear sooner or later even to the most blind. The fact that I have made your acquaintance, isn’t that already a good sign? The best sign that I could have hoped for? And now, my dear friend, I am going to speak to you about my present painting.

You must have noticed that since some time ago in the arts something has changed; let us not speak of neo-classicism, revival, etc. There are some men, among them probably yourself who, arrived at a limit in their art, have asked themselves, where are we going? They have felt the need of a more solid base; they have renounced nothing. This magnificent romanticism which we have created, my dear friend, these dreams and visions which troubled us and which without control or suspicions we have put down on canvas or paper, all these worlds which we have painted, drawn, written and sung and which are your poesy and that of Apollinaire and a few others, my paintings, those of Picasso, of Derain and a few others—they are always there, my dear friend, and the last word has not been said about them. Posterity will judge them much better that our contemporaries and we can sleep peacefully. But a question, a problem, has tormented me for almost three years; the problem of m√©tier It’s for that reason that I began to make copies in the museums, that at Florence and in Rome I spend entire day’s summer and winter, before the fourteenth and fifteenth century Italians, studying and copying them. I dedicated myself to the reading of ancient treaties on painting and Ii have seen, yes I have seen at last, that terrible things go on today in painting and that if the painters continue on this route, we are approaching the end.

First of l have discovered that the chronic and mortal malady of painting today is oil pigment, the oil believed to be the base of all good painting. Antonello da Messina, who according to history is supposed to have brought to Italy from Flanders the secret of oil painting, never did that. The misunderstanding springs from the fact that the Flemish, above all the Brothers Van Eyck used, in going over their tempera works with glazes, emulsions in which linseed or nut oil was contained in small part, But the base of their painting was tempera or distemper with which they sometimes mixed oils and above all resins or still other ingredients like honey, casein, the milk of fig trees, etc. In this fashion without any doubt painted Durer, Holbein, Raphael, Pietro Perugino, and I believe that even Rubens and Titian never did oil painting as we understand it today. When I had comprehended that, I began with the patience of an alchemist to filter my varnishes, to grind my colors, to prepare my colors and panels, and I saw the enormous difference which was the result.

The mystery of color, light, brilliance and all the magic of painting is to my mind the most complicated and magic art there is—all these virtues of painting, I say, expanded prodigiously, as if clarified by a new light. And I thought with melancholy of the impressionists—of Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, and of all these painters who thought to be able to resolve with their technique the problem of light when on their palettes they carried the very source of shadows! And I have painted also. I paint more slowly, it’s true, but how much better!

I have recently done a self-portrait of which I will send you a photo. It is a thing which could figure in the Louvre. I say that not to praise myself but because I think it. Excuse my long peroration about painting and also my poor French, the French of a peninsular barbarian. For today I don’t which to tire your further. I will speak about your poetry, my projects and my arrival in Paris which I hope to able to arrange this spring.

Thank you again.
I embrace you.
Rome 1922"


Still Life with Fruit   1925

Breton was horrified and disgusted about de Chirico’s change. Breton saw de Chirico's still life's and landscapes as complete hypocrisy.  While de Chirico had earlier declared art should be original, now he was painting unoriginal work.  This was the time when de Chirico split from the Surrealists. De Chirico began painting classical based still life’s and other purely classical Greek themes.

Breton expelled de Chirico from the Surrealists.


Italian Piazza Metaphysical painting, executed in 1965, signed 1950
De Chirico also painted similar paintings to his early Metaphysical Piazza series.  He claimed they were not copies, they were further explorations of the Italian Piazza.


Island of San Giorgio 1943


At the same time of the late Metaphysical paintings, de Chirico was painting Italian piazzas an landscapes. Here is an example of a painting made to sell. De Chirico lived through the rise and fall of Fascist Italy. individual thought was punished. Painting old master landscapes of Venice, could hide his personality.


Later Metaphysical Paintings

Now, I have written that de Chirico wanted to be rich. When I see how he lived in Rome, in the most enviable neighborhood, near the Spanish Steps. I understand how dealers made enormous profits off his early work. The demand for the Metaphysical Piazza paintings was consistent throughout his life. I can see why he continued to paint Metaphysical Piazza paintings based on his early period.


Later in his career, he painted in a Classical Museum style that included Greek mythology, still life and landscape. These were meant to sell and support his expensive lifestyle. These paintings were judged poorly and critics began to ignore all of de Chirico's paintings.




Armories in the Valley  1930

While dismissing all of his work, the critics missed three masterful Metaphysical series.

The first great series is called, Furniture in the Valley. A delightful and humorous contrast of furniture in nature.

Mysterious Baths   1930

Next we see Mysterious Baths. These paintings follow de Chirico's definition of creating something original and creating an enigma.


Sunlight on an Easel   1966


The final Metaphysical paintings are powerful poems on the sun. Painters have painted sunsets, none have painted the idea of the sun, the power of the sun, the enigma of the sun. This is an amazing series of paintings.

I think that these later Metaphysical paintings should be considered among the highest art achieved in the 20th century.

1 comment:

Fajita said...

I'm not an art student or anything, but I've always been drawn to Chirico's paintings. They're the eeriest things that I have ever seen, and every time I come upon one, I usually gaze it for a good half-hour or so before moving on with my life. Their simplicity is simply astounding.