20 November 2017

Giorgio de Chirico – artist

Founder of the scuola metafisica movement

Giorgio de Chirico painted this self-portrait, confronting a bust of himself, in 1922
Giorgio de Chirico painted this self-portrait, confronting
a bust of himself, in 1922
The artist Giorgio de Chirico, who founded the scuola metafisica (metaphysical school) of Italian art that was a profound influence on the country’s Surrealist movement in the early 20th century, died on this day in 1978 in Rome.

Although De Chirico, who was 90 when he passed away, was active for almost 70 years, it is for the paintings of the first decade of his career, between about 1909 and 1919, that he is best remembered.

It was during this period, his metaphysical phase, that he sought to use his art to express what might be called philosophical musings on the nature of reality, taking familiar scenes, such as town squares, and creating images that might appear in a dream, in which pieces of classical architecture would perhaps be juxtaposed with everyday objects in exaggerated form, the scene moodily atmospheric, with areas of dark shadow and bright light, and maybe a solitary figure.

These works were much admired and enormously influential.  During military service in the First World War he met Carlo Carrà, who would become a leading light in the Futurist movement, and together they formed the pittura metafisica (metaphysical painting) movement.

De Chirico's The Song of Love (1914)
De Chirico's The Song of Love (1914)
De Chirico’s work in this period, in which he was inspired by the German symbolist painter Max Klinger and the Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin, whom he had met while studying at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, was extraordinary.

Such works as The Enigma of the Hour, The Disquieting Muses, The Song of Love, The Soothsayer’s Recompense and The Melancholy of Departure, greatly inspired the Surrealists of the 1920s, who were enormously fascinated with the subconscious mind and saw De Chirico as a figure to be revered.

De Chirico never saw himself as a Surrealist, although he had admired Pablo Picasso after meeting him in Paris, yet he was happy to collaborate with the movement for a while, willingly showing his work at their group exhibitions in the French capital.

Yet in the 1920s he moved away from his metaphysical phase and began to embrace the traditional, looking for inspiration towards the Old Masters of the Renaissance, such as Titian and Raphael. 

He became an advocate for the revival of classicism in art and architecture and began to be an outspoken critic of modern art. When his former admirers in the Surrealist movement disparaged his new work, he denounced them as “cretinous and hostile” and distanced himself from them.

The Red Tower, which De Chirico painted in 1913
The Red Tower, which De Chirico painted in 1913
Born in 1888 in Volos in Greece to Italian parents – his mother was a  noblewoman of Genoese origin and his father an engineer hired to work on Greece’s new railway network – De Chirico studied art at Athens polytechnic before moving to Munich with his mother following the death of his father in 1905.

Returning to Italy, he spent time in Milan and Turin before settling in Florence, where the Piazza Santa Croce inspired the first of his metaphysical town square works, entitled The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (1910).

He stayed in Paris for much of 1911 and 1912, residing with his brother, Andrea, who was also a painter.  Works such as The Soothsayer's Recompense (1913) and The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) were inspired by Paris.

It was his time in Paris that particularly influenced the Surrealists, largely because one of the movement’s leading figures, the writer André Breton, happened upon one of his pictures in a gallery owned by the art dealer, Paul Guillaume, and told all his friends.

Another of De Chirico's classics of the  scuola metafisica, The Disquieting Muse
Another of De Chirico's classics of the
scuola metafisica, The Disquieting Muse
The outbreak of war saw De Chirico called up to serve in the Italian army. Stationed in Ferrara, he suffered a nervous breakdown and it was while he was recuperating in military hospital that he met Carrà.

He returned to Paris after the war with his first wife, a Russian ballerina named Raissa Gurievich, but left again after his acrimonious fall-out with the Surrealists, moving to New York and then London.

De Chirico divorced Gurievich and married another Russian, Isabella Pakszwer Far, with whom he would spend the rest of his life.  After returning to Italy in the early 1930s they moved to America to escape Fascism and settled in Italy only after the fall of Mussolini’s regime, acquiring a house near the Spanish Steps which is now a museum dedicated to his work.

He wrote at times as well as painted, and his 1929 novel Hebderos, the Metaphysician, was described by John Ashbery, the American Pulitzer prize-winning poet, as “the finest major work of Surrealist fiction.”

De Chirico attracted controversy in his later years when, disappointed with the lukewarm response to his classically-inspired work, he secretly produced a number of paintings in the style of the scuola metafisica and falsely dated them as if they had been painting during his peak years, greatly inflating their value.

The bustling Piazza di Spagna in Rome
The bustling Piazza di Spagna in Rome, where De Chirico lived
Travel tip:

The Casa Museo di Giorgio de Chirico – the museum housed in De Chirico’s former home – can be found in the 16th century Palazzetto del Borgognoni in Piazza di Spagna in Rome. The house was left to the state by De Chirico’s widow and opened as a museum in 1998. It is opened only by appointment, but can be visited by prior arrangement on any day apart from Sunday and Monday.  There are many of his works on display there.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is housed
in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal
Travel tip:

Many of De Chirico’s finest works of his metaphysical phase are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City but his 1913 classic, The Red Tower, is owned by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and can be viewed in the gallery in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the 18th century palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, where the American heiress lived for three decades.

Also on this day: 

1851 - The birth of Italy's 19th century Queen Margherita 

1914 - The birth of fashion designer Emilio Pucci.

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