1. Life and work
Source: Oxford University Press
(i) Vólos and Athens, 1888–1905
His parents came from the Italian diaspora within the Ottoman empire. He was very close to his brother, Andrea (who later adopted the pseudonym alberto Savinio). As children they identified themselves with the heavenly twins, Castor and Pollux, while their closest associates became the Argonauts (a reference to Giorgio’s birthplace, Vólos, from which, in Greek legend, the Argonauts departed to retrieve the Golden Fleece). The brothers’ inherited Greek culture was a consistently rich source of inspiration. Their father, Evaristo de Chirico, was an engineer engaged in supervising the construction of the railway in Thessaly. He encouraged his sons’ artistic talents, engaging drawing tutors for Giorgio and sending him to study with the Swiss painter Emile Gilleron (b 1851). From c. 1903 to 1905, at the Higher School of Fine Arts in Athens, de Chirico studied drawing under Georges Roilos (1867–1928) and Constantinos Bolonakis (1837–1907) and painting under the Munich-trained Georges Jacobidis (1852–1932). His failure in the final exams was probably due to the shock of his father’s death in May 1905. De Chirico’s mother, Gemma, remained a driving force behind her sons, pouring her ambition into their success.
(ii) Munich and Florence, 1906–11
In the autumn of 1906 the family left Greece, visiting Florence before moving to Munich. There de Chirico enrolled at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste and became interested in the bizarre narratives of Max Klinger’s prints. His early work, however, owed most to the mythological and symbolic paintings of Arnold Böcklin. It seems likely that de Chirico found in the world depicted by Böcklin parallels with his own childhood memories. In the 1920s he published an appreciation of both artists. Other painters whose work attracted his attention included Hans Thoma and, later, Alfred Kubin. De Chirico’s departure from the academy before graduation was perhaps as a result of his growing interest in the Munich avant-garde. By March 1910, when he left Munich to rejoin his mother and brother in Milan, his work was already less dependent on Böcklin.
It was probably in Florence in 1910, rather than in Munich as he later suggested, that de Chirico began to study Schopenhauer and Nietzsche through the writings of Giovanni Papini. In the same year he painted his first important work, Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (priv. col., see 1982 exh. cat., p. 134, pl. 4). The painting shows a small pedimented building with curtained openings set into a wall, beyond which the sail of a ship is visible; two figures stand near the base of a tall statue in the foreground, and there is a feeling of anticipation. It was de Chirico’s first attempt to capture the notion of the enigma and to penetrate to the reality concealed behind the everyday, where the commonplace becomes unfamiliar and reveals its true essence. The revelation of this parallel reality, inspired by the philosophy of Nietzsche, was a central concern of metaphysical painting.
(iii) Paris, 1911–15
De Chirico moved to Paris with his mother in July 1911 to join his brother. They stopped in Turin on the way for de Chirico to experience at first hand the city where Nietzsche, in embracing a beaten horse in 1888, first showed signs of madness. De Chirico associated this event symbolically with his own date of birth. In Paris, illness initially prevented him from painting, so his exhibition of three works at the Salon d’Automne in 1912 included the Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, which he had brought from Italy. By the end of 1912 his paintings of Italianate town squares, inhabited by statues or lurking figures, began to be occupied instead by the mythological figure of Ariadne; her assistance to Theseus in the escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth was a symbol of revelation. In order to enhance the feeling of disjuncture in these works, de Chirico undertook a radical reordering of perspective, creating deep, dislocated spaces closed off by rapidly receding arcades and high brick walls.
In 1913 de Chirico sold his first painting at the Salon d’Automne, and this seems to have inspired a new commitment to his work. At this time he attended the Saturday evening gatherings of Guillaume Apollinaire, finding in him an encouraging critic and an inspiring friend. Apollinaire was the first to apply the term ‘metaphysical’ to de Chirico’s art (in an article of 30 October 1913 published in L’Intransigeant), and through him the de Chirico brothers met Picasso, André Derain, Brancusi and Ardengo Soffici. Giorgio was less gregarious than Andrea (by then known as Alberto Savinio) and remained more aloof, maintaining his artistic isolation. Stylistically, his work was closer to the work of Henri Rousseau than to the formal concerns of the Cubists at this time. Apollinaire was nonetheless attracted by the mysterious and enigmatic qualities of de Chirico’s paintings (see Soothsayer’s Recompense, 1913)startend and gave him his imaginative support, a factor that undoubtedly reinforced de Chirico’s reputation.
De Chirico’s paintings with fruit, such as the Transformed Dream (1913; St Louis, MO, A. Mus.), were followed by a series of arcade paintings, in which the growing subtlety of his handling of oppressive spaces is most evident. In Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914; priv. col., see 1982 exh. cat., p. 154, pl. 31) the shadow of an invisible statue creeps across the centre of the canvas towards a darkened portico, while from the other direction a girl with a hoop runs across the open space.
The highpoint of de Chirico’s Pittura Metafisica was 1914. Series were replaced by works that were thematically linked but increasingly independent, culminating in such masterpieces as the Child’s Brain (1914; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.) and the portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire (1914; Paris, Pompidoustartend). In the latter de Chirico’s characteristic device of filling the foreground is exaggerated by the steep perspective and the vertical white slab with fish and shell moulds. Colour is restricted almost to monochrome, and the composition as a whole is almost abstract but for the classical bust, which acts as a partner to the silhouette of the poet above. Apollinaire encouraged the suggestion that the portrait likened him to the mythical poet Orpheus, an interpretation that appealed to the de Chiricos since Orpheus too was an Argonaut. The portrait is the product of an intimate and exclusive circle of friends, which included the de Chirico brothers, Apollinaire, Pierre Roy (who made a woodcut from the portrait) and Paul Guillaume. At Apollinaire’s suggestion, Guillaume became de Chirico’s first dealer in 1914. This productive association came to a premature end at the outbreak of World War I. The art world dispersed, and Apollinaire volunteered for the French Army. While Italy remained unaligned, de Chirico continued to work in Paris, producing works filled with brightly coloured toys, such as the Evil Genius of a King (1914–15; New York, MOMA). As the war progressed, however, life became more difficult, and his output diminished.
(iv) Ferrara, 1915–18
In May 1915 the brothers were called up as Italy prepared to enter the war, and they returned to Florence. De Chirico, hoping that hostilities would soon be over, left behind his unfinished canvases. He was not to return for nine years. In June 1915 the brothers were sent to join their regiment in Ferrara. De Chirico found Ferrara strange and beautiful, and despite the demands of military life he continued to paint, producing works that are imbued with the peculiar spirit of the city: his paintings are filled with brightly coloured mathematical instruments and with cakes and biscuits seen in shop windows. Others include maps and views of buildings and factories, often illusionistically rendered. Ferrara also provided an ideal setting for the mannequin, a symbolic construction that de Chirico had begun to use in Paris, which was inspired by a character in Savinio’s dramatic poem Les Chants de la mi-mort. He painted a series of works featuring composite figures, part-statue, part-mannequin. In the Disquieting Muses (1917; Milan, priv. col., see 1982 exh. cat., p. 182, pl. 71) three mannequins are placed on a steeply receding wooden platform before the red-brick Castello Estense in Ferrara. They seem expectant, and the deep shadows capture the feeling of tension suggested in the title.
During the war de Chirico managed to keep in touch with Apollinaire and Guillaume (to whom he continued to send paintings), and he made contact with Tristan Tzara about contributing to his Dada journal. In Ferrara a small group formed that included the poets Corrado Govoni (1884–1965) and Filippo de Pisis (later a painter). De Chirico, suffering from a nervous condition, was admitted to the military hospital, where in 1917 he was joined by Carlo Carrà. While there he produced a number of claustrophobic metaphysical interiors. Carrà rapidly assimilated de Chirico’s style with the results of his own researches and in turn undoubtedly stimulated him, particularly in the creation of mannequin paintings. Out of this exchange grew Pittura Metafisica, but the friendship was soured when Carrà left for Milan at the end of the year to exhibit his new works alone. De Chirico remained isolated in Ferrara, Savinio having been sent to the Macedonian front. In their correspondence with each other the brothers voiced hopes of forming a new, specifically Italian art movement, which would include Carrà, Soffici and Papini. While they had long expressed an interest in the de Chirico brothers’ work, all three remained uncommitted to such a project.
(v) Rome, 1918–24
De Chirico first exhibited in Italy with Carrà in Rome in May 1918. Nine months later he held his first one-man show, at the Galleria Bragaglia, also in Rome. During this time he began to contribute theoretical articles to periodicals, most importantly to Valori plastici, which, with its international contributions and distribution, became the mouthpiece for Pittura Metafisica, publishing work by de Chirico, Savinio, Soffici, Giorgio Morandi and Arturo Martini. Mario Broglio (1891–1948) became de Chirico’s dealer in Italy and produced the first monograph on the artist, as well as organizing the group exhibition that toured Germany in 1921. Pittura Metafisica’s theoretical basis was formulated through the pages of Valori Plastici in a series of articles stressing the importance of time and memory as generators of the new art, which sought renewal through the use rather than the rejection of history. In this respect, Pittura Metafisica came close in spirit to the contemporary rappel à l’ordre in Paris.
In June 1919 de Chirico experienced a revelation before a painting by Titian in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Consequently he began to reconsider the human figure and to make copies after Old Masters. This research brought about stylistic confusion in a series of Roman villas and Böcklin-inspired knights-errant. However, he produced a series of portraits that expressed his continued commitment to the metaphysical ideal. These works were quite independent of his other work of this time and were increasingly populated by statuary or by second sitters. In Florence de Chirico often stayed with the critic Giorgio Castelfranco, while in Rome in the early 1920s he frequented the theatrical circle around the composer Alfredo Casella and the writers Luigi Pirandello and Massimo Bontempelli whose Siepe a nord ovest he illustrated in 1924. Both de Chirico and Savinio were involved in theatrical projects, and through this connection de Chirico met Raissa Gurievich Krohl, whom he married.
(vi) Paris, 1924–31
In November 1924 de Chirico returned to Paris to work on designs for La Giara, a ballet commissioned by the Ballets Suédois, based on a short story by Pirandello and with music by Casella. After disappointment with the state of Italian art, this project allowed de Chirico to gauge the situation in Paris, much changed since Apollinaire’s death in 1918, and to make contact with the Surrealists. Their admiration for Apollinaire had led the group (centred around the poets André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard) to de Chirico’s painting, and in the war years they had been the principal buyers when Guillaume sold off the contents of the artist’s studio. Breton’s enthusiastic review of the Valori Plastici monograph had been used as a preface for the catalogue of the important one-man show of 1922 mounted by Guillaume, and a correspondence between them had begun. The Surrealists were familiar with de Chirico’s works of 1914 and 1917 and had interpreted them in the light of their interest in the subconscious, derived from Freudian analysis. De Chirico probably had no knowledge of Freud’s theories until the 1920s and was unaware of the Surrealists’ interpretation of his work, formulated during his absence from Paris.
In 1923 Eluard and his wife Gala had visited de Chirico in Rome. They became the subject of one of his finest double portraits (ex-Penrose priv. col., see Fagiolo dell’Arco, 1981, p. 1) showing the poet inspired by his muse. The Surrealists were, however, unprepared for the stylistic change in de Chirico’s work, which became fully apparent to them in 1924 when he returned to Paris. For a time, though, de Chirico complied with their hopes that he would paint metaphysical works, and he published an account of a dream in the first number of their periodical, La Révolution surréaliste. By Christmas 1924 de Chirico was back in Rome, encouraged by his reception in Paris; only in 1926 did the gulf between his philosophy and the Surrealists’ interpretation of it become unbridgeable.
In late 1925 the de Chiricos moved to Paris. There Raissa de Chirico studied archaeology, and her studies provided inspiration for his painting. Old contacts were reinforced, and new ones were established. In May 1925 de Chirico had a one-man show at Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie de l’Effort Moderne, heralding a period of prosperity. He also maintained his association with Guillaume in whose gallery he held a one-man show in 1926. Elsewhere in Europe, thanks to the activities of Broglio and Castelfranco, his reputation was extremely high. Even the Surrealists’ criticisms did not have an immediate effect on this; indeed they may have been beneficial since they provoked Jean Cocteau and the critic Waldemar George into taking up his cause. His new style was most clearly embodied in another series of mannequin paintings, for example the Painter’s Family (1928; London, Tatestartend): these seated figures retain the blank heads of their metaphysical ancestors but now have muscular limbs and elongated torsos, composed of geometrical instruments or architectural elements and suggesting the exposure of inner experience, memory and myth.
De Chirico’s main inspiration in this period was memory transformed and sublimated to become mythology. This is most effectively evoked in his only novel Hebdomeros (1929), which is rich in imagery and in its use of non-sequitur to convey the broken line of memories. The novel was hailed even by the artist’s detractors as a masterpiece and was intimately bound to his paintings of the period, such as the gladiator series commissioned by Rosenberg for the decoration of his Parisian home. In Combat (1928–9); Milan, Gal. A. Mod.startend) tightly knit groups of battling but static figures are piled in the centre of a room. The complexity and size of the paintings show that de Chirico had reached a new peak of confidence. In 1929 he also made a series of lithographs for the republication of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. Crisp crescent moons and suns that cast spidery shadows enter through the windows of rooms in a series of simple but extraordinary transpositions. They were regarded by de Chirico not as illustrations but as parallel visions, inspired by his reading and personal memory of the poet.
(vii) Milan and New York, 1932–8
De Chirico’s marriage to Raissa ended, and in 1931 he met Isabella Pakszwer Far, who, as his second wife, exerted as great an influence on his work as had his first. In 1930 and 1932 he exhibited with the ‘Italiani di Parigi’ at the Venice Biennale. His return to Italy was marked by shows in Milan and Florence in 1932, where his female nudes showed the influence of Renoir. In 1933 he carried out two public commissions: a large mural for the fifth Milan Triennale and sets and costumes for Vincenzo Bellini’s opera I puritani in Florence. For Cocteau’s Mythologie of 1934, de Chirico made a number of prints entitled Mysterious Bathers, depicting pools through which nude men are wading and on which bathing cabins are supported by platforms on stilts. The cabins, accessible by ladders and with portholed doors, and the empty spaces beneath them create a strangely disquieting atmosphere.
Aften a brief stay in Paris de Chirico left for New York in August 1935, prompted by the success of his earlier exhibitions there. New York brought him renewed prosperity. At five exhibitions, works were bought by public collections and by his American patron Alfred Barnes. These were primarily Horses by the Sea paintings, executed in his new classical style but retaining the theme of the heavenly twins. Despite the success of these shows de Chirico had returned to Italy by January 1938. After his mother’s death (July 1936), he and his brother Savinio slowly drifted apart.
(viii) Milan, Florence and Rome, 1938–47
In the months leading up to World War II, after the anti-Semitic laws had been passed in Italy, de Chirico made extended trips to Paris with his wife, who was Jewish. His work was nevertheless exhibited regularly in Italy, even during the 1940s, and he continued to receive public commissions from the Fascist hierarchy. His more conservative subject-matter, which consisted predominantly of horsemen in landscapes and official portrtaits (he painted Mussolini’s daughter in 1942), perhaps reflected the political pressures of the time. However, he also accepted new challenges, in 1941 illustrating The Apocalypse with remarkable, tight-lined lithographs of the visionary scenes. After a period in Florence in 1942, the couple settled in Rome in 1944. The uncertainties of wartime were matched by growing critical doubt about de Chirico’s work. The argument centred on his reuse of earlier styles, which was felt to be deceptive chronologically and hence in terms of value. De Chirico fired a broadside at his critics in his Memorie, published in 1946. Old scores were settled with former critics (the Surrealists) and old friends (Carrà) alike. The tone of defiance is tinged with paranoia, however, and conspiracy theories abound. This is counterbalanced by the fine early passages about his childhood in Greece, revealing the inspiration for Hebdomeros and describing the sharp loss of innocence at the death of his father.
(ix) Rome, 1947–78
While controversies continued, the contents of an exhibition of metaphysical works in Paris in 1946 were all declared fakes by the artist. He made similar assertions about other exhibitions. Some of the rejected works have been reinstated by recent research, and others confirmed as fakes produced by Oscar Domínguez and others. It became clear that along with reusing old styles, de Chirico had been painting copies of his famous works. He produced 20 versions of the Disquieting Muses, and there is little doubt that he sold some of them as the original. His defence was that both the concept and the work were his and the date of execution immaterial. This argument was intensified by de Chirico’s campaign throughout the 1950s against the Venice Biennale and modernism in general. His own reputation had become so fraught with difficulties, however, that his reaction against the commercialism of the post-war art scene was not taken very seriously. De Chirico proposed a painterly alternative in his neo-Baroque works, executed with a richness of brushwork reminiscent of Rubens, such as the Self-portrait in Black Costume (1948; Rome, G.N.A. Mod.). The culmination of this sumptuous painting style came in the large Still-life with Silverware (1962; priv. col., see 1985 exh. cat., p. 44). His continuing concern with the unity of the past and future is restated in this depiction of the Apollo Belvedere, accompanied by gleaming silverware and ripe fruit.
De Chirico continued to be active in a variety of media well into his old age. He worked on a large number of theatrical designs and illustrations and experimented with colour lithographs as well as sculpture. Around 1968 he began to produce small bronze sculptures of figures taken from his paintings: mannequins from the Ferrara years and horses from the 1920s, handled with somewhat less confidence than their painted counterparts. The Grand Metaphysician (c. 1969; Ferrara, Gal. Civ. A. Mod.) was scaled up from 0.52 m to over 3 m and is an extraordinary work, isolated and monumental, with a visionary aura. The same confidence and effectiveness are found in his paintings from the mid-1960s, when he dispensed with the neo-Baroque in favour of the neo-metaphysical, a style that occupied him until his death. In this phase, de Chirico began to treat his own work as part of history. Again, the subjects are mannequins from Ferrara and the 1920s, metaphysical compositions and calligrams, still-lifes and ‘mysterious bathers’. If proof were needed that his stylistic changes disguised a unity of intent, he provided it in these works by his use of a bright translucent style that paradoxically recalls its neo-Baroque predecessor. The neo-metaphysical was not just a reworking of old ideas; through it de Chirico produced some of his most perplexing images. Tumbling pedimented buildings form the unexpected head of his Mysterious Animal (1975; priv. col., see 1985 exh. cat., p. 31), almost certainly to be identified with Nietzche’s horse. In the Return of Ulysses (1973; Rome, Fond. Giorgio & Isa de Chirico, on loan to Rome, G.N.A. Mod.) a man tries to rise from a boat crossing the sea in the centre of a room: the hero, like the artist, is caught in the wheel of time. This uniting of his career under one style was an act of defiance directed at all those who might dismiss the years between Pittura Metafisica and the neo-metaphysical. De Chirico always wished his work to be approached as a unified whole, and he finally forced his public to accept an interpretation of his work that corrected the imbalance produced originally by the Surrealists.
From Grove Art Online