Giorgio de Chirico was born in Volos, Greece in 1888. His father, Evaristo, is a railway engineer and is involved in the construction of a railway line in Thessaly. His early education took place on Greek soil, taking private lessons from local masters and following courses at the Athens Polytechnic. When his father died when he was sixteen, he left Greece with his mother and brother. After a few stays in Italy, they decided to move to Munich. Here, the young artist can attend the Academy of Fine Arts, and his brother, known as Alberto Savinio, can study music.
The Romantic Period and “The Eternal Return of Time”
During the German years, he became acquainted with the poetics of the Romantic painter Arnold Böcklin and was fascinated by him. His early dechirican paintings, such as The Struggle of the Centaurs or Triton and the Mermaid, are very much influenced by the Swiss painter’s romantic and symbolist atmosphere. In this youthful period he also began to read the philosophical texts of Friedrich Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, which he would study in depth at the library in Florence from 1910, where he settled for a few months.
Nietzsche’s thought is fundamental to understanding de Chirico’s poetics, especially regarding the theory of the eternal return of time. Nietzsche states that past, present and future are one. He speaks of a cyclical time in which everything returns and is connected in a series of infinite cross-references. This is why atmospheres are suspended in the painter’s works as a symbol of a blending present, past and visionary future: de Chirico tells his story but also the timeless world of myth. To underline his devotion to the German philosopher, the artist made a self-portrait in 1911 in which he portrays himself in the same pose as a famous photograph of Nietzsche.
The Birth of Metaphysics
The first metaphysical suggestion was born in the Tuscan city, in fact the artist recounts having had an oracular revelation while sitting on a bench in Piazza Santa Croce. It was from this event that the painting Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon came to life, in which reality, memory of the ancient and future suggestions merge, showing the painter another reality, Metaphysics, that which is beyond physical things.
In 1911 he joined his brother in Paris and made friends with artists such as Apollinaire and Picasso. These years saw the birth of the figure of the mannequin, an entity very similar to a human being, but without a face or arms. Often his characters are equipped with a drawing on the face that recalls the ‘third eye’ of prophets or soothsayers, those who are able to read the oracle, as in the work The Vaticinator.
The mannequin thus becomes the painter’s alter ego, as it is endowed with divinatory and visionary abilities, being able to perceive another reality. During this period, the first Italian Piazzas were also created, works rich in Italian references and memories: almost uninhabited places surrounded by Renaissance arcades, fountains, monuments and statues of Cavour or Victor Emmanuel II.
The Ferrara period
When the First World War broke out, he decided to return to Italy and enlisted in the army. He was sent stationed in Ferrara, and here during his several months in the hospital of the Emilian city he met Carlo Carrà, who partly appropriated de Chirico’s Metaphysical Art, but had the merit of spreading it throughout Italy.
Throughout the 1910s he continued to create metaphysical subjects including mannequins, muses, Italian Piazzas and Metaphysical Interiors. The latter are a reflection of the shops in the Ferrara ghetto, places full of objects and especially sweets with metaphysical shapes. Indeed, Ferrara is described by the painter as one of the most metaphysical cities ever seen.
The dechirican return to order
At the turn of the decade, there is a change in his artistic language. At the end of the war he moved to Rome, and coming into contact with Mario Broglio, he became the spokesman for a return to order theorised within the pages of the magazine “Valori Plastici”. De Chirico called for a return to craft and studied 15th century art with devotion.
In 1922 he took part in the Florentine Spring Exhibition exhibiting works from the early Metaphysical period, as well as works reflecting on new twentieth-century research. Works such as L’enigma dell’ora (The Enigma of the Hour), Interno metafisico (Metaphysical Interior), I pesci sacri (Sacred Fishes), Il trovatore (The Finder), Ettore e Andromaca (Hector and Andromache) belong to the early poetic style; the more recent artistic experimentation includes La statua che si è mossa (The Statue that Moved), La partenza degli Argonauti (The Departure of the Argonauts) and Paesaggio romano (Roman Landscape). Even in his version of the “return to order” de Chirico never abandons Greek mythology, he only interprets it in a different key, with clear references to the art of Giotto, Signorelli and Piero della Francesca. In some paintings of these years, the artist also returns to reflections on Romantic art as in the work Villa Romana of 1922.
In 1924, he participated in the first Venice Biennale with I duelli a morte and L’ottombrata, which reveals clear references to Giotto’s art, especially in the architectural research.
The Surrealist parenthesis
In the same year he was back in Paris and approached the Surrealist group who recognised him as a brilliant forerunner of their poetics. In fact, he appears in the photo of the first issue of “La Révolution Surréaliste” and would move within the ranks of the movement until 1926. These years also saw the birth of the subjects of archaeologists, horses by the sea and furniture in the valley. The Surrealists owe much to dechirican metaphysics, to the sense of enigma, mystery and estrangement that one feels when confronted with the works of the Greek artist.
Magritte himself was thunderstruck by a work such as Song of Love. De Chirico, however, by this time had changed his path, and after this brief Surrealist interlude and a major quarrel with André Breton, he returned to his “Museum” studio and continued to experiment with all the painting techniques of the great masters of the past. In 1929, his book Hebdomeros was printed, in which many of his metaphysical suggestions come to life. During his long career, the artist also worked a great deal for the theatre: in 1930 he created the costumes and set design for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in 1933 he worked on the sets and costumes for I Puritani staged on the occasion of the I Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at the Municipal Theatre in Florence; he also created sets and costumes for Don Quixote in 1952, and in 1964 he executed five sets for Rossini’s Otello.
From the Last Renoir to Rubens: A Neo-Baroque Painter
In the 1930s, he concentrated his artistic research on the blurred lines of the last Renoir, when the French painter changed direction, moving away from Impressionism and looking to the art of Raphael. During these years De Chirico produced numerous nudes of bathers on the seashore or still lifes that he preferred to call Silent Lives.
From 1936 to 1938 he left for New York, achieving great success, but on his return to Rome grey clouds of hatred and war were surrounding Europe. Isabella is of Jewish origin and with the enactment of the racial laws, she flees to Paris to find refuge. Shortly afterwards, however, the French city was invaded by the Nazi army, so they returned to Italy, hiding out at friends’ homes between Milan and Florence.
In 1944 they returned again to Rome and stayed here for the rest of their lives, living initially in a flat in Via Gregoriana, then in Via Mario de’ Fiori, and from 1948 in a 17th-century palazzetto in Piazza di Spagna. In the 1940s, in the city of Baroque, the artist dedicated his studio to 17th century artists, especially Rubens, so much so that he was called a neo-Baroque painter, using a mellow brushstroke that was animated by the theatrical taste of 17th century painters.
The theatre also lives in his paintings and he produced many self-portraits in costume such as Self-portrait in the park in 17th century costume, Self-portrait in bullfighter costume or Self-portrait in black costume.
The issue of forgeries and the critics’ aversion
During these years, a problem arose that would worry the painter for the rest of his life: the issue of forgeries that were sold or exhibited at official events in abundance. One of the most striking episodes for the artist himself was the 1948 Venice Biennale in which a fake not recognised by Roberto Longhi was exhibited. At that event, de Chirico was doubly disappointed because the prize for Metaphysical painting was awarded to Morandi and not to him, the real creator.
Moreover, his “baroque” period was not much appreciated by critics, for many de Chirico died in 1919 as André Breton stated. However, he continued to participate in various exhibitions amidst appreciation and criticism such as the second Quadriennale in Rome where he presented forty-five works including Still Life with Melon and Grapes, The Dioscuri with Ruins and Architecture, Portrait of a Lady in Pink and Black, Bathers on a Beach, The Port of Genoa, Horses in a Greek Landscape, The Mysterious Swan, Achilles on the Seashore, Horses on the Seashore. Some of his metaphysical masterpieces such as Il trovatore, Interno metafisico con piccola Officina, Ettore e Andromaca, Le maschere, Le muse Inquietanti and Natura morta dal dolce siciliano were exhibited at Galleria Il Milione in 1939.
New Metaphysical Experiments: The Decade of Neometaphysics
At the end of the 1960s until the year of his death, the painter returned to metaphysical themes, reproducing youthful subjects but also creating iconographic novelties. Critics perceive it as a slavish copy of the artist’s first major period, but there are substantial changes.
From a chromatic point of view, the painter makes a change from the dark tones of Metaphysical Art to lighter, clearer tones; and then there are iconographic innovations such as shadows delimited by points, signs reminiscent of the volutes of the Ionic capital, or new characters such as The Meditator. The art of these last years will be called Neometaphysics.
The painter died in 1978 in Rome, and his remains rest in a chapel in San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere.
Emanuela Di Vivona