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Giorgio de Chirico

( Originally Published 1955 )

Greek-born Italian painter; son of a construction engineer for railroads, which helps account for the trains and draughtsman's instruments in his pictures. He studied first in Greece with a number of local painters and then at the Polytechnic Institute at Athens. On the death of his father, his mother moved the family to Munich, where young Giorgio, already very much interested in following art as a career, could pursue his studies. At the Academy of Fine Arts he enlarged his already considerable technical training. The most important effect of this period however, was the strong stimulus he received from the works of the nineteenth century German-Swiss Romantic painter, Arnold Bocklin. The influence of this master, particularly evident in the earlier works of Chirico (1911-17) accounts in great measure for the continuing emphasis in his art on the supernatural. Influence also came from the romantic and imaginative works of Gustav Klimt, Max Klinger and Alfred Kubin; the last-named artist's Vision of Italy is strikingly similar to Chirico's own later haunted squares with their troubling silence and symbolic statuary. In Munich Chirico also encountered the writings of Nietzsche, whose curious Stimmuag, or mood. with its suggestions of autumn afternoons and their long shadows again parallels the effects of Chirico's painting. In Italy from 1909 to 1911 he painted in a Bocklinesque manner and then moved to Paris, where his career really began. He reached his characteristic style in 1913 and 1914 with such works as Nostalgia of the Infinite. He soon . attracted the attention of a small group of artists and critics, particularly the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, who admired his talent "for depicting the fatal character of modern things."

Although Chirico's pre-World War I paintings ran counter to the general trend toward two-dimensional, space-controlled Cubism as illustrated in the work of Picasso, Braque, Gris, etc., they did conform to a general pattern of proto-Surrealist works (by such painters as Chagall and Henri Rousseau) emphasizing psychological rather than purely formal factors. Chirico projected his pictures on the basis of a far-reaching spatial environment, a bland and relatively unvaried surface texture and, most important, a lyricism of mood and a dreamlike quality that is particularly his. The frightening lighting effects and long, unnatural shadows, the mingling of Renaissance towers and modern smoke-belching chimneys, the strange Victorian statues standing menacingly quiet and accusing, gazing across the deserted squaresthese are all part of the painter's way of evoking a dream world-his own recollections sublimated in what he called "memories of Italy" and "piazzas of Italy." Around 1915 he turned to the mannequin themes, faceless, voiceless and eyeless creatures with a strange evocative poetry of mood, as in The Disquieting Muses. He returned to Italy in 1915, was sent as a soldier to Ferrara and there in 1917 with Carlo Carra launched the idea of metaphysical painting. The character of this art may be summed up in Sir Herbert Read's words (actually written about Paul Klee) : ". . . the metaphysical painter seeks to find some plastic equivalent, not for the content of the thought, but for its felt intensity." Thus in Ferrara Chirico moved from the far-reaching and dreamevoking spaces of the Italian piazzas to the narrow rooms and their provocative still-life compositions. The actual fabric of the painting became heavier and richer than before, while the still-life objects were animated, given human roles, made to act out implausible events that, combined with the extreme naturalism of their portrayal, places Chirico in the role of godfather to the Surrealist movement of the early 1920's. After the war Chirico turned to a kind of mystical neo-classicism that is not generally as well thought of as his earlier works. The final stage in his development as an artist was his turning against the modern movement in general, a movement which he had done so much to launch. With the possible exception of Modigliani, he is the most influential and even most important Italian painter of the twentieth century and one of the really creative figures of our time.

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