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Metaphysical Art

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term applied to the work of Giorgio De Chirico and Carlo Carrà before and during World War I and thereafter to the works produced by the Italian artists who grouped around them. Pittura Metafisica was characterized by a recognizable iconography: a fictive space was created in the painting, modelled on illusionistic one-point perspective but deliberately subverted. In de Chirico’s paintings this established disturbingly deep city squares, bordered by receding arcades and distant brick walls; or claustrophobic interiors, with steeply rising floors. Within these spaces classical statues and, most typically, metaphysical mannequins (derived from tailors’ dummies) provided a featureless and expressionless, surrogate human presence. Balls, coloured toys and unidentifiable solids, plaster moulds, geometrical instruments, military regalia and small realistic paintings were juxtaposed on exterior platforms or in crowded interiors and, particularly in Carrà’s work, included alongside the mannequins. In the best paintings these elements were combined to give a disconcerting image of reality and to capture the disquieting nature of the everyday.

The thinking behind this approach derived from the melancholic personalities of de Chirico and his brother, the writer and composer Alberto Savinio. It was encouraged by their reading (c. 1910) of the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger. They became interested in Nietzche’s notion of the eternal return and the circularity of time, which supported their own views about the re-enactment of myth. Their central concern was true reality (where the past recurs), which is hidden behind the reality of appearances and visible only to the ‘clearsighted’ at enigmatic moments. In his paintings de Chirico sought to unmask reality and reveal its mysterious truth. The modification of perspective and depiction of mundane objects provided the appropriate context.

In Paris (1911–15), de Chirico and Savinio became close friends of Guillaume Apollinaire , finding parallels to their understanding of Nietzsche in his conviction that the unifying element in contemporary painting was the idea of ‘surprise’, suggesting the inevitability of fate. It was Apollinaire who first called de Chirico’s painting ‘metaphysical’, referring to works produced in 1910 and 1911 (L’Intransigeant, 30 Oct 1913). De Chirico had been influenced by the work of the Symbolists and by that of Arnold Böcklin. By 1917, in Ferrara, he was painting in a simplified manner, in which crisp areas of colour outlined in black and a clear, dry modelling complement the disturbing subject-matter.

Carrà met de Chirico and Savinio for the first time in Ferrara in February 1917. A leading Futurist, Carrà had begun to withdraw from the movement in 1915 as he became interested in the combination of simplicity and monumentality in the work of Giotto and Paolo Uccello. Paring away superfluous detail in his paintings, he applied the structural lessons of these masters to figures and ordinary objects, attempting to reconcile art and nature. His understanding of Giotto’s use of a perspective subservient to the pictorial structure prepared him for the destabilizing space used by de Chirico. Carrà’s style fluctuated during these investigations, but in the metaphysical style of de Chirico he found a solution. The two painters worked closely for some months in 1917; while theoretical differences remained, their stylistic solution became known as Pittura Metafisica, a term that they were happy to apply to their work.

The Roman periodical Valori plastici appeared for the first time in November 1918 and became the proponent of Arte Metafisica, which had widened its activities in the preceding year. Savinio’s first book, Hermaphrodito, was published in 1918; Carrà held a show in Milan (1917–18), which included his Ferrarese works. De Chirico exhibited in Rome in 1918 (with Carrà) and 1919. During World War I the artists in Ferrara had been in touch with the periodical La raccolta in nearby Bologna. Through this connection Giorgio Morandi absorbed the metaphysical style; for a time c. 1918/19 his works came close to Carrà’s, in the crisp rendering of a limited group of objects. Morandi’s work was illustrated in Valori plastici, and he exhibited with de Chirico and Carrà but soon passed on to other considerations.

In 1919 Carrà published Pittura Metafisica; the book understated de Chirico’s importance in these developments and led to acrimony. A year later Filippo de Pisis, who had been part of the Ferrara group, published his lyrical prose collection about Ferrara, La città dalle 100 meraviglie. Although collages survive from 1916, de Pisis began to paint seriously only in 1919, using a soft impressionistic style for his vaguely metaphysical still-lifes. At this time the sculptor Arturo Martini, although dispensing with the characteristic perspective and mannequins, went some way towards reconciling Carrà’s Giottesque monumentality with the foreboding of de Chirico’s paintings by means of his small, clay figures. Martini’s use of the figure was symptomatic of Valori plastici’s sympathy towards the so-called post-war ‘rappel à l’ordre’. In its years of publication (1918–21), when the theoretical background of Arte Metafisica was being clarified by Savinio, de Chirico and Carrà, the style of both painters shifted radically from the position of 1917 to concentrate on the figure.

Several major artists were attracted by this development: Mario Sironi’s totemic mannequins turned into brooding solitary figures; and Felice Casorati used steep perspectives leading to dark interiors as the settings for his models. In Germany the impact of the two Valori plastici travelling exhibitions (1921 and 1924) was considerable. Featureless mannequins began to appear in the work of George Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter and Oskar Schlemmer. The effect was felt most profoundly, however, by Max Ernst. On his arrival in Paris in 1922, Ernst’s painting reflected the admiration of his poet friends for de Chirico. At that time only one painter, Pierre Roy (a pre-war friend of de Chirico), showed the influence of metaphysical art, but the painters who became Surrealists after Ernst almost all passed through a period of stylistic debt to de Chirico, notably Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti (the leading creators of the Surrealist Object), René Magritte and Paul Delvaux.

These groups—Novecento Italiano in Italy, Magic Realism in Germany and international Surrealism—carried the style into the 1930s. Although Carrà occasionally painted metaphysical works, it was only in the paintings of Savinio and de Chirico that the philosophical background of Pittura Metafisica persisted.

Matthew Gale
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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