Giorgio de Chirico, more correctly Giorgio de Chirico (Italian: Giorgio de Chirico, 10 July 1888 – 20 November 1978) was an Italian painter, writer and sculptor, known as one of the artists who shaped the genre of metaphysical painting (Pittura metafisica) and for his influence on 20th century artistic movements such as Surrealism and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).
His paintings are governed by visionary and poetic elements, while they are characterized by de Chirico”s particular emphasis on enigmatic compositions and the ambiguity of objects. The neoclassical style he adopted after 1919, like almost all of his work after his Metaphysical Painting period, was considered by many critics to be inferior, but his output during the period 1911-19 is recognized by the majority of them as important and distinctive in the history of modern art.
De Chirico was born in Volos and was the eldest son of Evaristo and Gemma de Chirico. His ancestors were of Italian descent who settled and inhabited the eastern Mediterranean several generations ago. His father worked as an engineer and supervised the construction of the Thessaly railway network in 1881, while his mother was a former opera singer. His family settled permanently in Greece in 1897, nine years after his birth. His brother, Andrea Alberto, also pursued a career in painting and literature, using the pseudonym Alberto Savinho from 1914. The Greek environment and culture in which de Chirico grew up was a source of inspiration for him. In an autobiographical text, he described his childhood with reference to ancient Greek mythology and in particular to the myth of the Argonaut expedition starting from Volos, writing: “he spent the first years of his life in the land of Classicism, playing on the shores that saw Argo begin her journey, at the foot of the mountain that witnessed the birth of the gorgopodaros Achilles and the wise admonitions of his teacher, the centaur”. Evaristo de Chirico wanted his son to follow the engineering profession, but he eventually encouraged his children”s artistic interests and entrusted their education to private tutors. De Chirico”s first teacher was a young Greek painter from Trieste, named Maurudis. Later, in the period 1903-5, he studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts, under the tutelage of Georgios Roilos, Konstantinos Volonakis and George Iakovidis. In May 1905, his father died, a fact probably connected with his failure in the final examinations of the school in the same year.
In the autumn of 1906, he settled with his mother and brother in Munich, where he began studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, taking courses in drawing and painting. He left the Academy before completing his studies and in the summer of 1909 he settled in Milan. Around the same time he came into close contact with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, which had a catalytic effect on his development and the formation of his style. In 1910 he painted The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (c. 1910, Private Collection), a painting often described as the first example of Metaphysical Painting. It is distinguished for its intensely enigmatic atmosphere, while incorporating poetic elements and transporting recognizable objects or everyday scenes into the realm of the inexplicable.
In 1911 he moved to Paris, having previously visited Turin for a few days, which he later depicted in a series of paintings. Taking advantage of his brother”s connections in Parisian artistic circles, de Chirico was warmly received and in 1912 three of his works were exhibited at the Autumn Salon, a self-portrait and the compositions The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and The Enigma of the Oracle. The following year he also participated in the Independent Exhibition, with the works The Melancholy of Departure, The Enigma of the Hour and The Enigma of Arrival and Dusk. Guillaume Apollinaire, an influential figure on the Paris art scene, was one of the first ardent supporters of his work and soon de Chirico joined his brother in a wider circle of artists that included famous painters such as Pablo Picasso and Francis Picabia. During World War I, his productivity was severely limited. De Chirico had been a deserter since March 1912 and was sentenced to prison. When Italy declared war on Austria in 1915, amnesty was granted to all deserters who would immediately present themselves, a fact which de Chirico took advantage of, finally presenting himself in May 1915 in Florence. The following month he was posted to Ferrara, where he continued to paint at a reduced rate, while trying to maintain his contacts in Paris, particularly with Paul Guillaume, who was the exclusive seller of his works. During the war, he also managed to maintain contact with Apollinaire and Tristan Jarrah, contributing to Dadaist periodicals. In Ferrara, he became associated with the painter Ardengo Sophizzi and the writer Giovanni Papini, pursuing the dissemination of Metaphysical Painting in Italy, an effort to which Savinio also contributed. In 1917, the painter Carlo Carra moved to the same city and became friendly with de Chirico, assimilating many elements of Metaphysical Painting. Later, Cara claimed paternity, which led to his dispute with de Chirico.
At the end of 1918, he left Ferrara and settled with his mother in Rome. A few months later, his first major solo exhibition was organized at the Bragaglia Gallery (Casa d”Arte Bragaglia), but it was not a success. Only one of his paintings was sold, and the art critic Roberto Longhi – a major influence on the Italian art scene at the time – commented negatively on his Metaphysical Painting. During this period, de Chirico continued to publish essays, notably in the Italian magazine Valori Plastici, which featured a wealth of theoretical essays on Metaphysical Painting. His publisher, Mario Brolio (1891-1948), was also the main dealer of de Chirico”s works in Italy, and the first to publish a monograph dedicated to him (Giorgio de Chirico. 12 tavole in fototipia precedute da giudizi critici), which included a series of essays by Apollinaire, Sophizzi, Papini, Cara and Louis Vossel, among others. In Rome, de Chirico was a member of the theatrical circle centred on the Italian composer Alfredo Casella and the writer Luigi Pirandello.
In June 1919, de Chirico experienced what he later called an ”epiphany”, probably on seeing a work by Titian at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, marking a transitional phase in the early 1920s. As part of a profound change, he began to copy works by the Masters of the Italian Renaissance, imitating their style and developing a neoclassical style, significantly differentiated from his earlier creations. Around the same time, his ”metaphysical” works were admired by the surrealists, who later disowned him because of his turn to the neoclassical and neo-romantic style. In May 1925, a major solo exhibition was held at Leons Rosenberg”s Galerie de l”Effort Moderne, and at the end of the same year he resettled in Paris, where a particularly productive period followed during which he achieved considerable fame, both in the French capital and in other European countries. His second stay in Paris lasted until 1929, the year in which he completed a commission to decorate the house of Leons Rosenberg with battle scenes between Roman gladiators. During the same period his novel Hebdomeros was published, and he also produced a series of lithographs for a reissue of Apollinaire”s poetry collection Caligrammes. In the early 1930s he moved several times, seeking suitable conditions for the exhibition of his works. He lived for a time in Italy, participating in the Venice Biennale, and returned to Paris in 1934, where he began to produce a new series of works known as The Mysterious Baths (Bagni misteriosi), intended to illustrate Jean Cocteau”s poem Mythologie (Mythology). In August 1935 he moved to New York, where he lived for the next two years and organized a total of five exhibitions of his work. Despite their success, he returned to Italy in January 1938.
For a short period, before the outbreak of World War II, he lived in Paris before returning again to Milan. Throughout the 1940s, his work was regularly shown in Italy, while he continued to undertake public commissions, having adopted a new style, with elements of neo-baroque, but also a polemic against modern art. In 1942 he participated in the 23rd Venice Biennale, showing his works in his own gallery, but without receiving positive reviews. His later work was met with a strong mood of controversy by critics, and for his part de Chirico considered himself unappreciated on the basis of his overall contribution to modernism. Through a plethora of essays, he expressed his opposition to what he perceived as the ”dictatorship” of modernism, and in 1950-3 he organised ”anti-Biennales”, presenting works by ”anti-modern” artists. The following years saw a series of scandals and trials related to forgeries of his works. De Chirico himself used to make copies or multiple versions of his most famous paintings, which to a certain extent favoured such phenomena of forgery on a large scale. He continued to work until the last years of his life. He was systematically involved in the theatre, and his ”neo-metaphysical” works, first exhibited in Milan in 1968, also stand out. In 1974 he was honoured by the Academy of Fine Arts, and the following year he was appointed a member of the French Academy. De Chirico died on 20 November 1978 in Rome at the age of 90. In 1986 the Foundation Giorgio and Isa de Chirico was established to preserve his work.
In de Chirico”s early works, the characteristic technique of Metaphysical Painting is found, as well as the influences of Baiclin and Klinger, particularly evident in his early works, such as The Dying Centaur (1909, Assitalia Collection, Rome). De Chirico had a particular admiration for Baiclin”s mythical and symbolic landscapes and for Klinger”s enigmatic or sometimes ”supernatural” prints. From early on, he incorporated mythological elements into his paintings, inextricably linked to autobiographical references. His metaphysical iconography was associated with the work of Nietzsche and in particular with some of his most important philosophical texts, such as Behold the Man and Tade efi Zarathustra. The Enigma of the Oracle (c. 1910, Private Collection) is a typical example of the direction de Chirico was to take. In the same work, the figure depicted is a faithful copy of the painting Ulysses and Calypso (1882) by Arnold Baiklin. De Chirico”s first ”metaphysical” painting is considered to be The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (1910, Private Collection), a work inspired by the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, in which for the first time he dispensed with elements of narrative, relying solely on the poetic characteristics of the work, while attempting to convey the notion of the enigma behind everyday experience. Although inspired by Florence”s Santa Croce Square, de Chirico transformed its architectural elements, turning the Renaissance gable of the church into an ancient Greek temple, or replacing the monument to Dante with an ancient statue. The revelation of a parallel reality was one of the central themes of his Metaphysical Painting.
After his short stay in Turin and during the period 1912-5, de Chirico produced a series of works entitled Squares of Italy. They are characterised by the common themes of desert squares usually adorned with few figures or sculptures, multiple perspectives, and a pervasive atmosphere of melancholy. In several of the works in this series, de Chirico depicted the figure of the mythological Ariadne, as in Melancholia (1912, Eric & Salome Estorick Foundation), Ariadne (1913, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), The Dusk of Ariadne (1913, Private Collection), and The Reward of the Seer (1913, Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts, USA). The city of Turin was also the subject of several of his paintings, in particular the Mole Antonelianna, one of the tallest buildings in Italy, which was probably the inspiration for The Nostalgia of Infinity (1912, MoMA) and The Great Tower (1913, North Rhine-Westphalia Gallery).
His presence in Paris ensured his contact with the powerful artistic circles of the city, especially with Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso and the group of surrealists. Apollinaire was one of the first to appreciate his paintings, which became objects of admiration for avant-garde artists, and he became one of the ”heroes” of the Surrealist movement. In October 1913, Apollinaire wrote one of the first reviews of de Chirico”s work in L”Intransigeant magazine, stating, “The art of this young painter is esoteric and cerebral, unconnected with that of other painters who have been discovered in recent years. It does not come from Matisse or Picasso, nor does it come from the Impressionists. This originality is enough to secure our attention.” In the same review, Apollinaire described de Chirico”s paintings as “strangely metaphysical”. Numerous de Chirico manuscripts attest to the fact that he used the same term, as early as 1911, to describe his work. His friendship with Apollinaire was reflected in a series of portraits painted by de Chirico, while Apollinaire in turn dedicated the poem Océan de terre to him and owned several of his paintings.
The year 1914 is considered the high point of his “metaphysical” painting, as it was then that he completed some of his most important works. Among them stand out Child”s Mind (1914, Stockholm Museum of Modern Art), one of his most famous paintings, which belonged to André Breton, Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire (1914, Georges Pompidou Centre) and Love Song (1914, MoMA). During his time in Ferrara, his work was characterized by diversification, adopting new motifs and themes. In a series of paintings he depicted interiors with strange and heterogeneous objects such as geometric instruments, maps or cakes in various shapes, inspired to a certain extent by the shop windows of the city, which had made a great impression on him. The Ferrara was also the ideal setting for a series of compositions adorned with dummies (faceless dolls), a symbolic construction de Chirico had begun to use during his stay in Paris, inspired by a character in Savinho”s dramatic poem Les Chants de la mi-mort (Songs of the Half-Mortal). De Chirico”s dummies, typical of the school of Metaphysical Painting, express in one interpretation the modern figure of the blind seer of antiquity and were often depicted in his works, such as in his paintings The Seer (1914
In 1919, there was a new major change in his artistic career, as de Chirico turned his attention to the study of the Italian classical masters. In an essay published in November 1919 in the magazine Valori Plastici, entitled Return to Skill (Italian: Il ritorno al mestiere), he clearly declared his return to traditional iconography, stating his desire to be a ”classical painter”. In his essay, de Chirico expressed in detail the new ideas he was formulating, concluding that he wished all his work to be stamped with the three words Pictor classicus sum. In his later works he developed a neoclassical style, trying to imitate the masters of the Italian Renaissance, with the painting Farewell to the Argonauts (c. 1920, Private collection) being a typical example. For de Chirico, the 1920s was a period of constant change and intense exploration. During this period, the ”metaphysical” paintings he had previously produced were being discovered by the group of French Surrealists. Several artists who belonged to the Surrealist movement recognized de Chirico”s influence on their work, such as René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst. André Breton, in his essay on Giorgio de Chirico published in 1920, identified him as a leading figure in the formation of a new mythology. The Surrealist group recognised the value of the works of the period 1910-19, when, according to José Pierre, de Chirico was ”the ideal model of the Surrealist artist”, but rejected his later works, with the exception of the novel Evdomeros. The divergence of de Chirico”s views with the Surrealists was formalised in 1926, when in the seventh issue of the journal of the group La Révolution Surréaliste, Breton described him as a ”lost genius”.
In the early 1930s, de Chirico made a series of paintings in the style of Renoir, at a time when his art in general was undergoing several changes, also adopting a kind of academic realism. Of particular note are the paintings in the series of Mysterious Baths, which he began to paint in 1934 and which were exhibited two years later in New York. They are characterized by the repeated depiction of water surfaces, with the presence of nude swimmers and men in suits. De Chirico was inspired by Max Klinger”s Mysterious Baths and they were the end point in his journey towards renewing the form and searching for new motifs. In 1929, his most important literary work, the novel Evdomeros, was published. Critics disagree as to the literary genre it actually represents, and the literary critic Giorgio Manganelli characteristically defined it as “a repository of images”, considering it not to be a narrative novel. It was warmly received by the surrealist group, despite the fact that it had broken off contact with de Chirico.
After his return to Milan at the end of 1939, he worked on neo-Baroque works inspired by Rubens or Velázquez, which he presented in 1942 at the Venice Biennale. A typical example of this style, which he followed in the following years, is the painting Bathers (1945, Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation). In 1971, Claudio Bruni Sakraischik began recording his work, and two years later, the first anthology of his texts was published by Wienland Schmied.