Giorgio de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Strange

A few stylized paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.

It’s the minor greats who tend to reward more casual spectators of art. Attempting to dip a toe into a topic as overwhelmingly protean as Matisse or Picasso could be an open invitation to critical piranhas. But Giorgio de Chirico’s work, on the other hand, is all charm and free fancy. His early paintings from the 1910s were a catalyst for the Paris surrealists. He was a favourite of Sylvia Plath. The list goes on. Simply throw a dart and you’re bound to hit one of his disciples – whether it’s Feuillade or Cocteau or Hitchcock, Bunūel, Dali, Robbe-Grillet, Edward Hopper, John Ashbery or Rene Magritte. Could we really imagine any of them without de Chirico’s empty cities and enigmatic objects?

A Greco-Italian, Giorgio de Chirico worked in a style termed pittura metafisica – technically an offshoot of Italian Cubo-Futurism. Romantic-symbolist in their subject matter, his paintings often have an allegorical, dream-like atmosphere. Images recur of a ghost-town, comprised of looming towers and classical boulevards reminiscent of the sinister mezzanines in David Lynch horror films or the ‘backrooms’ of Tiktokism.

There’s an early work called ‘The Poet Returns’, which is admittedly a personal favourite of mine. For almost five years it’s been the very first thing I can see upon waking and the last as I fall asleep; a disintegrating colour reproduction torn from a primer on Dada to decorate bedroom walls. But this personal affection confirms its (modest) power. No, it’s not the best nor the most iconic de Chirico painting, but it’s a perfectly serviceable example of his style, nonetheless. Hopefully, in describing it, I can say something useful or succinct about Giorgio de Chirico’s aesthetic – a manner that continues to perplex and beguile even today.

Giorgio de Chirico's painting, "The Poet Returns", depicting a train with a puff of smoke against a strange cityscape.
The Poet Returns – 1914

In this painting we stand in the middle of a narrow street or alley looking up towards a piazza. A tower and a smokestack loom over a wall at the end of the square. The tower is bedecked with flags and topped with a dome. The length of the street is cloaked in dark shadow whereas the square is bathed in opaque noonday sunlight. The top of the building on the left has a little sunlight as well, so that we can see the architecture is white, whereas the shadows are sort of raw reddish brown and make everything look as if it’s been rubbed with crushed charcoal. There’s an ominous, hard-to-describe mood to the arrangement. A small puff of smoke or a cloud appears to hang in the middle of the street where the shadows terminate, like a tumbleweed in a spaghetti western. You can almost hear the harmonica in the background.

Yet upon closer inspection we can observe the puff of steam emanates from a curious semi-submerged shape that creeps behind the bottom edge of the canvas, the silhouette of a locomotive, diminutive to the point of toyetic, as in a Balinese shadow play. It may or it may not disturb one’s impression of a space extending as a box-like, perspectival grid. Similarly, the portal in the building on the left of the street is all wonk and error. It renders conspicuous the paintings geometrical presentation, its linear character. Thus, the error becomes expressionistic.

We actually find it easy to believe that seemingly random stuff inside ‘The Poet’ could play an expressionistic or symbolic role, simply because the painting has a very charged syllogistic mood. Giorgio de Chirico’s is an art which compels by virtue of its intense subjective flavour, a suggestive poetry rather than any formal logic or originality (although he manages the organization of his pictures with unfailing, and sometimes suspiciously good taste). Trains as it so happens were among de Chirico’s favourite leitmotifs, often painted in as a lumpen black crankshaft stamped onto the canvas. De Chirico’s father apparently was a civil servant who worked with trains. Perhaps the train is his symbol?

Giorgio de Chirico's painting, "The Anxious Morning", depicting an ever-narrowing structure, a blue-green sky, and tall shadows.
The Anxious Morning – 1912

De Chirico’s use of paint can be deceptively nimble. He would often paint a la ligne claire; utilizing thin black lines to separate area-shapes. What results is dry and precise, but also somewhat brittle. It’s reminiscent of a kind of faux-late Italian gothic style often bordering on Caravaggio manqué. There’s an impression of raking light combined with powdery hues, like tempura or gouache. The overall effect is of childlike sweetness, such as we might find in illustrations for an encyclopedia or Le Petite Prince by Exupéry.

Giorgio de Chirico was essentially one of the first major painters of modernism to turn his back on Cézanne. A painting like ‘The Poet’ owes more to Fra Carnevale or Arnold Bocklin, even, than it does to anything by the impressionists. Except it’s really difficult to figure out precisely in what tone of voice de Chirico is addressing us. Even the evocative title has a whiff of irony. The scene hovers between memorial and pastiche.

An anonymous painting of Berlin from centuries ago.
Anonymous – The Ideal City (Berlin), 1480(?)

Renaissance art was the art of serene idealism; of the highest, noblest values conceivable to humans at the time. Its lofty perfectionism was supposed to put you, the audience, in a lofty state of mind. Romanticism was the art of protestant dynamism and aggression and thinking modern life was absolutely rubbish. Giorgio de Chirico, on the other hand, uses classicism in a rather different way. Phoniness to the point of whimsy or perhaps even insouciance, as in a feeling of deja vu, or waking dream. Like a memory of oneself in a parallel universe.

Techno-futurism was fashionable for the intellectuals of Mussolini’s Italy, similar to the uneasy and short-lived alliance between Stalinism and constructivism. It was de rigeur to be against classicism and the ‘professorial past’. But de Chirico broke away from these aggressive aesthetic policies by inventing a style all at once modern and classical.

‘Hang on a second, Ethan’, I hear you cry. ‘Isn’t there actually something rather kitschy about this painting?’ Such are the customary reprovals. Too mawkish. Too affected. Too illustrational. And those are the nicer ones. In a phrase that has since engraved itself in my imagination, I can recall a particularly irascible English critic dismissing de Chirico’s entire oeuvre as mere ‘pseudo-esoteric twaddle‘. What could possibly be said to rebuff such a withering criticism! In fairness, it’s bemusing to contemplate a kind of kitsch that would equal de Chirico’s verifalsi, his witty version of high-art-lite. Kincade or Jack Vettriano certainly never managed anything comparable. As evidence, I would urge attendance to the actual surfaces of de Chirico’s paintings, and to his unmistakable affinity for pigment. While it’s true that he favoured techniques reminiscent of priggish old-master academicism (his often onerous lacquer and glazing), he was equally capable of utilizing an array of bewildering and singularly original painterly effects.

Giorgio de Chirico's painting, "The Faithful Servant", depicting an early Cubist style.
The Faithful Servant – 1916

Take, for example, another one of Giorgio de Chirico’s early paintings, ‘The Faithful Servant’, where he presents a box of candies still wrapped in their cellophane and silver paper. They are so ravishingly depicted and three dimensional that they almost pop into your head, if not your mouth. Perhaps the only other artists capable of painting sweets so delectably were Chardin or the Dutch still life painter Clara Peeters. And yet the paperweight naturalism of the candy evinces the Italo-vorticist interior. It crushes the back into a stage-flat of two-dimensional scenery. We may be tempted to reach out and touch. But it would be like reaching the corner of a picture-box by Van Hoogenstraten. What a triumph of trompe l’oueil illusionism! ‘You might want this…’ de Chirico seems to be saying. …Although you really mustn’t.’

But I only mention ‘The Servant’ as a riposte to the claim that Giorgio de Chirico was an unskilled painter. Rather, I would counter, de Chirico’s so-called naivety is always deliberate and carefully considered. But returning to ‘The Poet’ – there’s something similarly weird about that cropped locomotive. It sits both outside and of and yet across the picture all at once. And the puff of steam, like one of Joan Miro’s polka dots rests somewhere within the depth of the picture while swooping rising from the exhaust of the train. They behave almost like abstractions or figures reduced to graphic signage, as if to be read rather than merely seen.

In previous essays I mention postmodernist art and its tendency towards both psychology and ahistorical hierarchies of taste. De Chirico’s irony, his pillaging of the past and shifting of styles like so many changes of clothes, his embrace of kitsch and posturing disdain for modernism all seemed to constitute post-modernism before the fact. It’s easy enough I should think to see that de Chirico definitely has a sense of humour, but who is the butt of the joke?

‘The Poet’ sometimes reminds me of those old Krazy Kat comics by George Herriman. Those expansive, twilit plains. The twee, Freudian hijinks. The sense of a somnambulant nocturnal world but flattened into a cardboard onomatopoeia. It’s obvious, to me at least, why a painter such as Philip Guston was so taken with de Chirico’s plaza scenes. The only certainty appears to be the unexpected, and its powers of persuasion to rival the most insane beauty.

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